Did Downton Abbey Lose Its Charm? Finale Rounds Out a Frustrating Season
by Hanh Nguyen
Michelle Dockery, Julian Ovenden
[WARNING: The following contains spoilers from the Season 4 finale of Downton Abbey. Read at your own risk.]
We are grateful to have Downton Abbey in our lives, but our devotion to the show is the very reason we’re so irked at how it progressed this season.
Although we’ve come to terms with the loss of Matthew (Dan Stevens) and Sybil (Jessica Brown-Findlay), it doesn’t seem like the writers quite know what to do in the wake of those deaths. So much of this season felt either forced or false or just failed miserably. Has Downton Abbey lost its charm?
Before launching into the season as a whole, let’s go over the highlights of the finale, shall we? Yet again, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) decided to overlook Bates’ (Brendan Coyle) probable murder of Green (Nigel Harman) because Bates is so loyal to the family. Plus: Cora’s brother Harold (Paul Giamatti) brought a little chaos but turned out to be a playboy with a conscience, Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) decided to keep her baby near Downton, Daisy (Sophie McShera) became the unrequited crush of a Yankee servant, Ivy (Cara Theobold) set her sights on the U.S., Thomas (Rob James-Collier) tried to make trouble for Tom Branson (Allen Leech), and Rose (Lily James) came out (in a debutante way).
As finales go, it wasn’t as sad as last season’s tragic shocker. So, yay for not offing another beloved character. Points also for finally giving Edith her autonomy back, Daisy her pride and Mr. Sampson (Patrick Kennedy) another lesson. Other than those very satisfying events, the whole was just a continuation of the baffling and disjointed trend of this season. Let’s take a look at what wasn’t working for us:
Anna and Bates’ difficulties: Without a doubt, this was the worst story line and overshadowed much of the season. If Matthew and Mary’s romance was the heart of the show upstairs, then Anna (Joanne Froggatt) and Bates were their counterparts downstairs. Portraying rape carelessly and to create tension in a story is just reprehensible. To make matters worse, the fallout created a loss of faith between Anna and Bates, which didn’t ring true considering all that they’ve been through. Add in the likely cold-blooded murder of Green, and we’re afraid that this plot has tainted how we’ll see Bates — and by extension Anna — going forward.
Downton Abbey and the insensitive portrayal of rape on TV
The Crawley sisters’ love lives: The inequity between Mary and Edith is just deplorable. Can’t Edith for once get an appropriate (and available) suitor? They’re either too old, a possible fraud or already married. To make matters worse, even though Mary had already found the love of her life, widowhood isn’t keeping the men away. Early on in the season, there were a few moments — when Mary wept on Carson’s (Jim Carter) shoulder and then crashed the tenants’ luncheon — that felt like a natural part of her awakening from mourning. But no, that wasn’t enough for the writers. Mary was also fast-tracked in the romance department and had three suitors vying for her hand. And despite her protests that she’s not ready to move on, by the end of the season she agrees to “let battle commence.” Ick.
Rose’s rebellion: We really, really miss Sybil. While the youngest and most beloved Crawley sister challenged old-school thinking with her progressive fashions, egalitarian views and love for a mere chauffeur, all of it was done with the best intentions. We can’t say the same for spoiled Cousin Rose, whom we first saw pretend to be a maid and later toyed with Jack Ross (Gary Carr) in order to spite her mother. In both cases, the men ended up hurt because Rose couldn’t see past her own selfish needs . Now that Rose is out in society, she needs her heart broken to know what it feels like. As she is, Thomas would never weep over her!
Shrinking Violet: The Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) didn’t get anything of substance to do this season; we don’t feel the one-episode illness (she recovered!) or accusing a gardener of theft to be a good showcase for her wit. To us, those stories felt like parodies of the Violet we know and love. She’s best when she has her nose in the family’s business, and therefore helping Molesley find work and sniffing out Edith’s secret were on the right track, but left us wanting. May we suggest next season give her something meaty — perhaps she somehow gets wrangled into helping to reclaim Edith’s lovechild? Or maybe she vets each of Mary’s suitors?
Thomas’ empty villainy: Like the Dowager Countess, the underbutler we love to hate was wasted this season. With the exception of accidentally getting Nanny West fired, his genius for troublemaking was woefully underutilized. All he did was sneer, scheme and glower but without the teeth to carry out any of his threats. We expect better-laid plans from Thomas. Was there not enough time to formulate an actual plot for him? It’s clear that he and the Dowager Countess are victims of a show with too many characters to service, but we’d at least like the screentime they have to be worthwhile.
Mature love: Lord and Lady Grantham are still going strong (after he almost cheated on her), but for anyone else over 40, love is either presented as a thing of the past or mocked, such as in the case of Mrs. Crawley (Penelope Wilton) or Martha Levinson (Shirley MacLaine). We can only hope that Mrs. Hughes’ (Phyllis Logan) flirtation with Carson at the beach is not just brought on by heatstroke.
Seen but not heard: Although high class children were mainly raised by their nannies in that era, little Sybbie and George deserve better. At the very least, Mary’s love for Matthew should make her want to have a more active part in her son’s life. Ditto for Tom while he’s going about his business on the estate. It’s strange to think that Lady Edith may be the one to dote on her child more, even though her daughter won’t be acknowledged by polite society.
To end on a positive note, here are some points that felt natural to us this season: the introduction of new technology in the kitchen, Mary taking an interest in the estate, Lady Edith’s fashions and mothering instinct, the return of Branson’s political interests, Mrs. Crawley’s heartbreaking struggle with grief for Matthew and Molesley (Kevin Doyle) dealing with job security.
Overall, the season felt muddled and like it was laying groundwork for more (i.e. Mary’s suitors). It’s clear that this was a transitional season, which wasn’t completely satisfying, but at least it gives us hope for Season 5.
What did you think of the finale and Season 4 in general? What were your favorite parts? Your least favorite?