Sunday, January 19, 2014

Downton Abbey Review: "Episode 3" - All This Has Happened Before, and all of It Will Happen Again

Lady Mary is set up on a blind date and goes about as well as you think

Downton Abbey is a show about change or at least a show about changing times.  And yet this episode seemed to be filled with nothing but stories we’ve seen before and will likely see again.  Once again, Lady Mary is being set up with a potential suitor because God forbid she be allowed to create her own life and personality in the wake of her husband’s death.  Edith and Michael are also stuck on a merry-go-round, circling the same story over and over.  And it’s really a shame because I’m enjoying all of these performances, I just wish they were in service of more interesting stories.

Throughout the episode, Lady Mary is clearly a woman torn between two worlds.  The bulk of the episode is framed around her trip to London where she, not Robert, will negotiate the estate’s death taxes.  It’s a remarkable turn for the woman who basically didn’t leave her room for sixth months after Matthew's death, as shown in the season premiere.  And if the entire show were about Mary and Branson operating Downton I would probably enjoy it quite a bit.  But, alas, Mary is a woman in the early 20th-century, which means that if she’s single for any reasonable length of time then something must be wrong with her.  So Robert, Cora, and Rosamund all conspire to have Lord Gillingham meet her once again for an evening of dinner and dancing.  It’s not that I dislike Gillingham, I really don’t.  I’m simply tired of watching men constantly throwing themselves at Mary.  I get it.  She’s a highly attractive potential spouse.  But the first and second seasons were largely focused on finding Mary a husband (by my count, Lord Gillingham is the sixth potential suitor we’ve been introduced to in some thirty episodes, not even counting Matthew).  I’d prefer the show not travel down this well-worn path yet again.  Let Mary figure out who she is as an individual before tying her up with another man.

On the other end of the love spectrum, Edith and Michael finally consummate their relationship on the eve of his journey to Germany.  I like these two as a couple, but their story has been spinning in circles for a year and a half now (about six or seven episodes).  With Michael gone for an extended period of time perhaps Edith, too, can develop a life of her own.  When Edith was first offered her newspaper column last season I thought it was an excellent way to open the world of Downton Abbey.  Instead, its main function has been to make yet another relationship the primary focus of a Crawley woman’s life.  Indeed, it seems like every line Edith has nowadays is either spoken to Michael or about him.  I really like the Downton women, but I wish Julian Fellowes could find more for them to do than dance at parties and be wooed by men.

Back at Downton, Edna’s finally played her hand too far, blackmailing Branson with their post-concert hookup and threatening him with the possibility of a pregnancy.  She’s yet another in Downton’s long line of mustache-twirling cartoon villains brought in solely to stir the pot and cause trouble.  The mark of a great show is the ability to generate drama out of its characters reacting to their everyday lives.  If you are only capable of creating dramatic moments by inserting new characters to cause trouble (see also Mr. Green, Bates’s wife, etc.), then the stories come off as manufactured and inauthentic.  Granted, Thomas seems to be behind most of the trouble-making, but his overt villainy has managed to put him squarely in the mustache-twirling category himself. 

Downton Abbey is a show about changing times and is itself occasionally willing to embrace change.  But it’s time for the show to make a foundational change.  Ditch the suitors, lords, and parties.  Let the women live their own lives and make their own decisions.  That was, after all, one of the most lasting changes of the Roaring Twenties. 

A couple of spare thoughts –

I know I’m supposed to be shocked and intrigued by Rose dancing with the “gallant bandleader” Jack Ross but I was too distracted by his terrible American accent and lackluster singing voice to care.

Lord Gillingham just about made me gag when he told Mary, “I’ll never love again as I love you in this moment.”  Please, dude, you’ve known her as an adult for like two months.

So thoughts?  Comments?  Just want to tell me my blog sucks?  Let me know in the comments or on Twitter @TyTalksTV.

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