Anyway, so now that everyone knows that Matthew and Sybil have joined the choir eternal (you didn't know? Sorry! Spoiler Alert!), I figured I might as well delve a little into the Masterpiece Theater sensation, Downton Abbey.
When it first aired in the US, a couple of years ago, The Working Dad and I were all a'twitter. It was right up our street: Edwardian British costume drama. And the fact that it was written and produced by Julian Fellowes -- author of perhaps my favorite movie ever, Gosford Park -- was even more reason to tune in. And Maggie Smith! Professor McGonagall has never looked better.
So, of course we did tune in, and it did not immediately disappoint. It starts with the loss of the last male heir to Lord Grantham, squire of Downton, on the Titanic. Oh dear!
But in those days of entailed estates, it was a serious matter. So, here, Lord Grantham found himself with a distant cousin, a lawyer, son of a doctor, as his next male relative. A major part of the storyline deals with the ersatz romance of Mary, the Earl's eldest daughter, and Matthew, the new heir. (And I should say at the outset that this pairing has never captivated me, nor have I found it believable. Mary is a cold fish and Matthew should have gone for Lady Edith instead and left the haughty Mary a spinster.)
Still, there were things to keep my interest: the Bates/Anna romance was sweet (if not somewhat weird and uncomfortable), and Lady Sybil's political interests and her kindness to Gwen the housemaid who wanted to be a secretary are stand-outs for me. Also, Thomas and O'Brien's machinations were classic moustache twirling soapy fodder. Somewhere in there, we learn that Thomas is gay and has had a dalliance with one of Mary's potential suitors. Oh and Mrs. Patmore's cataract surgery.....
But then: Oh, Julian, you nearly lost me! Mr. Pamuk and Mary.
Really? We were really supposed to believe that such a vibrant, randy young man would just collapse and die whilst taking Mary's maidenhead? (Or even that she would give it up to a virtual stranger, however hot, so easily?) But, however improbable, it was certainly possible, so I went along with it. And I mean, look at those lovely dresses! So Season One ended with The Working Dad and me mostly still on board and more-or-less looking forward to Season Two.
So Season Two begins with World War I. Matthew, having been spurned by Mary, gets engaged to Lavinia Swire and goes off to war. Thomas, the evil footman, and William, a lesser footman also join Matthew in France, somehow all conveniently assigned to the same regiment. Thomas gets himself intentionally injured, so he can return home. William and Matthew are also injured, William fatally, but in a slow way so that he can return home to be a source of anguished guilt for Daisy, the kitchen maid, who likes him but doesn't like-him-like-him and who eventually marries him on his deathbed for pity (or friendship or both).
During the war, Downton Abbey is turned into a hospital/convalescent home for wounded soldiers, and Matthew, Thomas, and William are returned there. There's some vague power struggle between Matthew's mom, the former nurse whose name escapes me, and Cora, Lady Grantham. (A potentially interesting character: she's one of those American heiresses known as Buccaneers, who were spirited off by title-rich-cash-poor young English noblemen in crass efforts to save the family manse with an infusion of American capital via their wives' fat dowries.)
Lady Sybil becomes a nurse and Lady Edith generally hangs out with the injured officers playing book-reader and secretary, while Mary pines unconvincingly for Matthew. (Also Sybil falls in love with and eventually elopes with the chauffeur, the brooding Irishman Tom Branson, but more on them later.)
But what of poor Matthew? Lest you forget that this is a soap opera, Matthew sustains a back injury that has left him paralyzed from the waist down. This worries all concerned for, if Matthew cannot reproduce, Downton lacks an heir and the estate is doomed . . . again. Matthew attempts to release Lavinia from the engagement, but she stands by him, like a good plot device and soon enough, with the help of a little physical therapy, and the sang froid sort of love that only Mary can provide, Matthew walks again!
But that's not the only heir excitement that our aristos experience at Downton Hospital. A mysterious Canadian officer, face covered in bandages, claims to be the true heir, presumed drowned on the Titanic! Yes!, he has no British accent, but somehow, Lady Edith is convinced it must be he. Alas, he hoofs it when people start to question his veracity. So Downton is safe for Matthew and Lavinia!
Yes, Matthew and Lavinia. For even as he recognizes his love for Mary, and even as she covets what she cannot have (e.g., Matthew and the Downton estate that comes with it), Matthew is going to stand by Lavinia as she stood by him. He will marry where he does not love because, after all, it's the right thing to do.
Good thing for him that the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918 takes Lavinia out quickly and with very little fuss.
Hooray! Matthew's free to marry Mary (I guess). So after some hand-wringing on his part and a lovely Christmas episode, he proposes to Mary and she accept him.
I've got to tell you that the bandaged-faced heir nearly lost The Working Dad and me. Actually, it did lose The Working Dad. Combine it with the miracle cure of Matthew Crawley, and the framing (or not) of Mr. Bates for the murder of his estranged and charactaturely evil wife, and it's starting to feel a bit like One Life to Live, but in really fancy dress. We swore we'd not watch Season Three. It was getting to be too ridiculous.
But then . . . Season Three rolled around and, well, there wasn't much else on, even with Bunheads returning for a second season, so we set the DVR and started watching again. In this season, I fear, Mr. Fellowes, you may have lost us for good.
Not because you killed off Matthew (thank you, by the way) and Lady Sybil (a shame, she was nice), but because your lovely program has wandered so far down Soap Opera Avenue as to become an unintentional parody.
First, the best thing about Season Three: The episode in which Lady Sybil dies in childbirth of eclampsia. It was affecting and gripping. It was a great episode with excellent acting, but particularly by the man who plays Tom Branson. Well done.
But one episode cannot make a season, but a lot of silly can ruin it.
For instance, it appears that the overarching theme of Season Three is "Lord Grantham is a puddin'-headed douche." Don't believe me? Here's a general run-down, of his increasingly stupid and/or destructive moves:
- Loses Cora's fat dowry in an improvident railway investment in Canada.
- Forbids his middle daughter from marrying/seeing the only guy who has ever given her a bit of attention (except for Bandages in Season Two), and succeeds in running him off in such a way that she is jilted at the alter.
- Having ensured Edith's spinsterhood, scorns Edith's efforts to be useful by becoming a journalist.
- Insists that a doctor even more toffee-nosed and douchey than himself treat Sybil during her labor, thus ensuring that she would receive inadequate treatment for her pre-eclampsia and ensuring her untimely death.
- Insists that Tom Branson not name Sybil's child after her departed mother and further insists that Baby Sybil be Christened Anglican and not Catholic like her father. (Thankfully, Lord Destruction loses this battle.)
- Throws a hissy fit when Matthew points out that he might not be a good manager of money, and suggests investing with a guy named Ponzi.
I suppose that Fellowes was trying to illustrate that Lord Grantham was watching himself become a relic in his own lifetime and was not coping well with the rapid changes in his world, or his loss of power. But did he really have to suggest investing with Charles Ponzi in one of the later episodes?
Other silliness in Season Three:
- Ethel, the former-housemaid-former-prostitute-turned-cook, is too proud not to put "prostitute" on her resume.
- The suicide by pie-crust by the late Mrs. Bates.
- The convenient inheritance by Matthew of Lavinia's father's money to save Downton, again, and then Matthew's even more convenient death at the end of the season leaving the run of the estate to completely and totally inept Lord Grantham.
I could go on, but you get my drift. The series has steadily spiraled into "evil twin" territory.
Julian Fellowes says that he had to kill off Matthew Crawley and Sybil Branson when their actors did not renew for a fourth season because it was the only thing that made sense. (Which I dispute . . . I think it was spite that killed the characters, but that's for another day.) However, I wonder . . . could it be that he's setting up a Jazz Age resurrection plot for Season Five, should one of them wish to return? I mean, why not at this rate? Surely, it can be explained by the discovery of some forgotten identical twin cousin or something, like on The Patty Duke Show.
But before I leave it, I want to make clear: Sure, it's all good fun, I guess. But this series could have been so much more. The Tom and Sybil relationship could have be so interesting in Ireland, had we been allowed to watch it there. It would have been even more fascinating to see Tom hanging out with Patrick Pearse or, I don't know, William Butler Yeats and Maud Gonne. It could have been so interesting.
But I suppose stories of political intrigue in Ireland during the fight for home rule aren't really the sort of upstairs/downstairs affair that Fellowes was looking to generate.
Anyway, I was disappointed at the end of Season Three, not because of Matthew's death. (That came as a welcome relief. At least we won't be tortured further by the literally unbelievable romance of Matthew and Mary.) I was disappointed that the series seems to drift ever-more-cartoonish.
Will we watch Season Four? Oh, probably, if there's nothing better on . . . but we won't like it. Maybe we could make a drinking game: every time Lord Grantham makes a ridiculous pronouncement, take a shot. Every time Mary gives someone a withering look take two shots. Every time a fellow gives Edith attention and then leaves take three. Hate watching can be fun.