If you remember my original post back in January I was questioning whether or not I wanted to continue watching Downton Abbey. From series two’s unwelcome shift towards melodrama and Julian Fellowes reliance on improbably convenient plot devices, I was driven almost to the point of abandoning what is arguably the most successful British costume drama of all time.
Since I felt that I couldn’t rightfully call myself an Anglophile nor a telly blogger if I wasn’t up on what was happening at the Grantham’s estate, I decided to give Downton one last try for Queen and country as it were.
And after making the commitment to see the series through I found that, despite a few exceptions, overall I liked it this time around. I even found myself filling my husband in on the storylines he missed while instead snoozing in his comfy recliner. If I’m going to bother to rehash the episodes, I must have found some of the stories, if not compelling, at least entertaining.
Upon reflection, what lured me back was the positive growth of many of the Abbey’s veteran inhabitants. No surprise here, most of them were downstairs folk.
1. Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) became my favorite character during this series. Of course Downton’s head housekeeper has always been a firm but kind authority figure to her charges. However this year, it becomes clear that Elsie Hughes is a mother to many of the staff and a trusted friend of the Crawley family.
Downton’s household members feel confident disclosing their missteps and hardships to Mrs. Hughes. She won’t necessarily condone their actions, but they know her to be a fair and tolerant person.
This season she was a great help to Tom regarding his indiscretion instigated by a scheming maid. More significantly, in Anna’s hour of need after a brutal sexual assault, she relied heavily on Mrs. Hughes’ calm demeanor in coping with the aftermath.
The housekeeper then proceeded to turn as protective as a mama bear when Anna’s attacker returned to the house showing no sign of remorse.
And no one could be a better counterpart to the curmudgeonly old fashioned Mr. Carson.
2. Viewers couldn’t possibly miss the growing friendship between Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton) and the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) this season. Both women have grown in some very painful and personal ways. Most notably for Isobel was the death of her son, Matthew, who, as we vividly remember, died in quite an unnecessary (yet contract releasing) car collision.
While obviously devastating, Mrs. Crawley’s loss has fortunately not affected her dedication to helping others, namely a very ill Countess. It has however apparently tempered Isobel’s tendency towards self-righteousness – a trait that annoyed the Dowager Countess to no end.
Violet, who has been known to show moments of true kindness on occasion, may have simply intended to help a grieving mother in the beginning. But in her own gruff and proper way, the Dowager seems to be stumbling towards a true fondness for Isobel.
3. Mr. Molesley (Kevin Doyle) had a run of bad luck and self-pity but has since emerged as a force for good in the house. After the premature demise of his former employer, Joseph Moseley found himself out of a job and qualified beyond the needs of local employers. He resorted to patching roads for a time and was quite humbled and despondent for most of the season.
However on his second chance to replace the departing Alfred as a footman, a position he once thought below himself, Molesley has fit in at Downton rather well as a mature and professional servant, second only to Mr. Carson. It turns out that he’s something of a gentleman as well.
Another positive thing to come from this development is that Thomas has lost his bite as a bad guy. Mr. Molesley has called him out as a bully and a malcontent reducing Thomas to little more than a tattletale now.
4. It took almost the entire series but Daisy Mason (Sophie McShera) has finally come into her own. I have no doubt she could run her own kitchen since, under the tutelage of Mrs. Patmore, Daisy has become an accomplished cook who is self-assured in frantic situations.
More difficult to accomplish for Daisy was a mature attitude towards her unrequited love, Alfred Nugent. It was quite a tangle of hormones and longing looks below stairs there for a while…
For most of the season Daisy railed against her lack of romantic prospects, being jealous of Ivy and doing everything she could to turn Alfred’s head. But with time, perspective and the very thoughtful advice of her father-in-law (remember when she was married to William for a few hours?), she came around to the idea of letting go of the one who couldn’t reciprocate and wishing him well. I won’t lie. The scene with Mrs. Patmore telling Daisy how proud she was of her brought a tear to my eye.
Unfortunately there were a few characters who didn’t display much growth or maturity. Obviously with a drama like this there has to be some degree of bad judgment and general misbehavior, but it’s getting to be a habit for Bates and Lady Edith and to be honest it’s wearing a bit thin.
Mr. Bates is showing himself to be a boy who doesn’t know how to use his words. Yes, he helped Mr. Molesley out of a financial jam and used his disturbingly suspicious forgery skills to assist his employer.
Nevertheless, Bates lives by a moral code that makes you wonder what will set him off next. It’s a mentality like this which made his wife suffer needlessly. Anna couldn’t share her trauma with him for fear of him taking revenge. I just can’t trust him anymore.
Poor Lady Edith is still poor Lady Edith. We dared to think she’d found a love match that would finally make her happy but fate kicked her in the teeth yet again. Mr. Fellowes must really hate her.
A missing fiancé and a baby on the way is a lot to cope with to be sure, whether you’re an aristocrat or not. But rather than making the difficult yet prudent choice to leave her child with a couple in Geneva and move on with her life, Edith insists on retrieving the infant and placing it with a farmer and his wife who live on the estate so that she can be part of her daughter’s life. You and I both know this can only end in tears.
I am of the inclination to come back next year for series five, but I do have a few suggestions for improvement if anyone on the Downton production team would like to take notes…
I hope over-the-top story lines like the whole Prince of Wales caper won’t be repeated. I felt the actors were winking at the audience the entire time because we all know Wallis Simpson is on the horizon.
I wish they’d get rid of Rose since her tenure as spoiled, society girl gone wild has gotten stale. Give her a good hard dose of reality or send her on her way, please.
And while I did like Paul Giamatti as Cora’s playboy brother, it’s not necessary to haul out her brash mother for every series. Maggie Smith’s doing just fine without Shirley MacLaine for an adversary.
Just keep giving us solid character development and people with good hearts to root for and everything should be fine. How did you feel about series 4? Pleas do share your surprises, delights and disappointments with us in the comments.
Carmen is an American wife and mother of two college students who live away from home. With her yellow lab Malcolm by her side, she watches and writes about British television for her own blog Everything I Know about the UK I Learned from the BBC. Read more of Carmen’s posts here.