I'd love to apply for the job of advisor to Julian Fellowes. I could do a world of good for Downton Abbey's beleaguered characters.
The fifth season was another indulgent peek into the upstairs and downstairs lives of a fictional great house in early 20th century England. While I'm fairly certain I wouldn't be comfortable actually living the lifestyle of the Crawley family, the unrestrained opulence continues to draw me in: the enormous drawing rooms, the impossibly long banquet tables, the clothes, the hats, the upholstery.
Executive producer Gareth Naeme enthuses that these characters are "so like us," but the Crawleys inhabit a strange and fascinating world. It is a world in which grown men and women have servants who dress them twice a day and put them to bed at night. A world where small children live almost entirely separately from their parents, paying them short visits at teatime, but adult children are expected to live with, travel with, and eat breakfast, lunch and dinner with their parents.
Yes, it is an odd world to my 21st century American eyes, and it is made odder by the plot twists and turns cooked up in the writers' imaginations. In a recent New York Times interview, Julian Fellowes made the startling revelation that he is reluctant to let Downton Abbey develop into a soap opera. He wants to keep the narrative real, or at least "realish." (Realish is his word, not mine.)
Mr. Fellowes, if you're reading this, I offer you my Season 5 observations and suggestions.
On the Bateses' continued troubles.
At some point, the writers decided that, in order to keep our interest, they needed to keep the Bateses constantly embroiled in murder cases. This was a serious miscalculation.
Here's Julian Fellowes in the NY Times interview:
Happiness is quite a difficult concept when you have an ongoing drama. What you can’t do is have everything go right. Then you’re just left with a couple saying, “Did you have a good day, darling?” “Terrific, why don’t you sit down while I get dinner?”
Wrong, Mr. Fellowes. This is exactly what should happen to the Bateses. What we don't need is more time spent on a murder case that manages to be both dull and ludicrously improbable. Whatever domestic boredom you were avoiding by keeping this storyline open would be far better than the tedium we're enduring now. The Bateses are becoming all work and no play, and it's frankly exhausting.
If the Bateses' happiness bores you, then let them fade into the background as minor characters who pop in and out of the room, occasionally imparting gentle wisdom to anyone who needs it.
On premature bereavement.
We essentially have three young widow(er)s in the Crawley family — Edith is not legally a widow, but she's close enough to count — all of whom have lost their partner at the birth of their only child, or during the pregnancy. The love stories of all three Crawley sisters have followed the same schema: Love → marriage/engagement → unexpected death of spouse (or self) immediately upon arrival (i.e. birth or conception) of firstborn child.
This is a cruelly repetitive plotline, a failure of imagination on the part of the writers, and it comes at the viewers' expense. Nobody wanted any of these people to die in the first place, and the fact that none of them get more than a brief moment with their child before passing on is beyond the pale.
Note to writers: Don't even think about trying this same storyline with Rose and Atticus. Should you bless them with a child, let's agree that both parents will survive for at least the first few months of their baby's life. Ideally, they'd live to see their children well into their tweens, but I don't want to ask for too much.
Edith's story has always been painful to watch, but this season was particularly bad. I can't possibly reconcile myself to the way Edith unceremoniously tears little Marigold away from her loving adoptive family. For Marigold, the Drews are her parents, the only ones she remembers. No mention is made of the difficulty she might have adjusting to life at Downton, away from the woman she thought was her mother. No arrangements are made for her to visit the family that have loved her as their own. Once Marigold is safely at Downton, the story moves on to the ever important topic of who knows Edith's secret. Because, clearly, keeping track of who's gossipping about Edith is more important than any attachment issues her child might have after being yanked from one family to another. That Marigold's pain and the Drews's pain have already been forgotten feels cheap and false.
More on Edith . . .
When it comes to broken hearts, Edith's resume is uniquely impressive. It's not just the sheer number of disasters; it's the quality. Her adventures in romance have been colorfully, exquisitely, gloriously bad. As a collection, they have spanned all possible levels of absurdity, from the sad-but-humdrum to the patently ridiculous. They have drawn from all walks of life, every age, social class, and marital status.
Recall her history:
Season 1: Edith suffers rejection from two different cousins, both (in succession) heirs to Downton, both in love with Mary. When she finally lands a suitor (a man older than her own father), he drops her after Mary tricks him into believing that Edith is mockingly toying with him.
Season 2: A disfigured burn victim and supposed recovered amnesiac comes to Downton with his Canadian accent (apparently a lingering effect of the amnesia), pretends to be the dead cousin Edith had always loved, wins her heart, and then leaves once the jig is up. (!) She also has a brief fling with a married farmer, before the angry wife bans her from the farm.
Season 3: The older man from Season 1 comes back into her life, then jilts her at the altar.
Season 4: The father of her unborn child, who, by the way, is married to a crazy woman he's trying to divorce, disappears. In Season 5 they find his remains.
Clearly, the writers will leave no stone unturned until they've explored all possible angles of heartbreak for Edith. We're left wondering,"What next? A depressive poet who drinks himself into oblivion? A con man who woos her and then leaves town with the family jewels? A much younger man who happens to be a pirate?"
In all seriousness though, here's my best guess: Edith will be courted by a closeted gay man who is using his relationship with her as a cover for his sexual orientation. He'll be a sensitive, sympathetic character, and she'll fall madly in love with him. Meanwhile, he'll fall madly in love with Barrow, and Edith will be devestated when she discovers the truth.
Note to writers: Please consider the following alternative. Edith falls in love with an unmarried man, who loves her in return. They get married and both live well beyond the birth of their first child together. The revelation that Edith's foster daughter is actually her love child should provide more than enough drama for this hypothetical couple to work through, so there's no need to bother with some overblown plot development involving amnesia, secret insane wives, piracy etc.
In seasons past, Mary was a compelling character with a mixture of personal failings and redeeming qualities. We saw selfishness, pride, compassion, conscience, coldness, love. And despite her reserve, Mary always brought a great deal of pathos to the show.
But not anymore. Now she is vacant and superficial. She has completely moved on from her grief over Matthew's death to the point where she never mentions his name. Yes, we know that she wants to marry again, but an occasional moment of sorrow, or perhaps a loving look at a framed photograph or a lock of hair (or the son Matthew left her) would seem appropriate. And why, after losing her own husband, has she not even a shred of compassion for Edith? Why has the relationship between Edith and Mary regressed to the petty nastiness that we saw back in 1912? It's 1924 now, and these women are not teenagers; they're likely in their thirties.
Thankfully, the Christmas special softened Mary just a bit. She is genuinely moved by the Bateses' plight, and she visits Anna in prison. She holds hands with Tom and Edith in a moment of remembrance for Sybil. She sings Silent Night at the Christmas party. It is not enough.
Note to writers: I want more from Mary, and I have drawn up a wishlist for your convenience: A bit of compassion for Edith. A bit of tenderness for little George. A moment of longing for Matthew. Some depth of feeling for her next love interest and some vulnerability as a result. And, if I am going to dream big, I would love to see Mary in a situation where she must temporarily take on some simple household chores and childcare duties. I'm sure the writers will be able to contrive an appropriate storyline.
On finding love late in life.
On the rare occasions that an older character in film or television is permitted to develop a romantic relationship, it's almost always meant to be comical. Two senior citizens flirt a bit, and suddenly the soundtrack switches to the funny music.
Well done, Downtown Abbey, for taking a different tack. The characters in the older generation have more than their share of romance this season, and we're meant to take them seriously. The funny music is reserved for the likes of Spratt and Denker's chicken soup shenanigans (though that story wasn't nearly as amusing as the writers no doubt meant it to be).
I had read a spoiler, so I knew that the Hughes-Carson engagement was coming, and I was pleasantly surprised at how nicely that story played out. Mr. Carson takes himself so seriously that he is always one step away from being ridiculous. But the proposal scene was sweet and sincere, when it easily could have been silly.
I've never been particularly invested in the Isobel-Lord Merton relationship, preferring Dr. Clarkson as a potential soul mate for Isobel, so I wasn't too disappointed when that didn't work out. But I was pleased that this was a relationship that we were supposed to be invested in. This wasn't the comic relief.
The head-scratcher for me was the affair between Violet and Prince Kuragin. I found it entirely unbelievable that he should be madly in love with her, and that she should have feelings for him. He is younger and bearded and Russian and roguish looking. He doesn't strike me as Violet's type.
And I have to put in a good word for our youngish-middle-aged lovebirds, Molesley and Baxter. After her trouble with the law and with Barrow, Baxter has achieved a level of serenity that is a beauty to behold, and Molesley has finally come into his own. Note to writers: It will be a travesty if these two don't end up happily ever after.