Third Time with Downton Abbey

Joanne FroggattI can’t really take anymore of this Boston business. There are things to be happy about, but mostly I’m finding my fellow citizens (including the president) disappointing. So let’s talk about Downton Abbey.

Finally, I’ve watched the whole series. But I didn’t watch it in order; I watched it in this order: first, third, second. There were really only two subplots that needed filling in. The first was the story of Ethel Parks, the housemaid with big dreams who ends up pregnant by a libertine army officer. In the third season she is your typical scarlet letter fallen woman with a heart of gold. But in season two, she starts off quite obnoxious. This is a surprisingly uncommon story arch: the brash youngster who society brutalizes to the point where she becomes a decent human being. I like that story line because it is the story of my life and I dare say that of most people. It is shocking to see people make such a big deal out of Ethel’s having a child out of wedlock. It certainly isn’t like that now; but all that has really changed is what we decide to shun people for; we actually do it more now than ever; ask a felon how it is to find a job.

The second story that needed a little filling in was, of course, Bates’ murder conviction. But I already knew the outlines. In the first season, it was established that Bates had an estranged wife who was at least a little crazy, having caused Bates to go to prison for her crime. The only thing that needed filling in was how she came back into his life. Enter: Iago Number One, O’Brien. It’s all very melodramatic. In fact, as if just to annoy me, writer Julian Fellowes, has O’Brien bring Mrs. Bates back twice.

And that gets us to my biggest realization of watching these middle episodes: it is too much of a soap opera. Too much of the characters’ motivations are based upon the dictates of the plot than any reasonable understanding of how people really act. And it is particularly bad with regard to the subplot about Bates and Anna. You may recall in my discussion of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, that one of things I most liked about the film was that I cared about all of the subplots. In the case of Downton Abbey, I don’t much care about anything other than Bates and Anna. And it seems very much like Fellowes is screwing with them in ways that don’t feel authentic.

On the other hand, the series includes delightful moments. I particularly liked a short sequence where the staff of the Crawley house opened a soup kitchen and pulled in various (and surprising) people from Downton Abbey. And I do care about the characters. Over time, I’ve come to understand O’Brien better, but of course, that’s probably more me than the series. It would be nice if Fellowes got clear on her character. Also I like that Lord Grantham is an entitled prig and yet tries very hard to be a good man. There is a sequence in the second season where he learned that he has badly wronged Bates and does his best to fix the situation.

So over all, I like the show. I look forward to the fourth season. But if he starts screwing with Bates and Anna now that they are finally settled, I will stop watching. And yes, I do have a crush on Joanne Froggatt who plays Anna. Allow an old man the few joys he has left!

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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