It has taken four episodes but finally the award winning Downton Abbey is back to its best. I think the overwhelming averageness of the new series’ first three instalments best goes unsaid. I don’t know where Fellowes was, but he wasn’t where he used to be, that’s for sure. It’s as if he had decided what would happen in episode 4 and didn’t really care how he got there. Well, we’re here now, at last.
I should note here before moving on that I shall not be explaining in this post the ins and outs of the show, but rather assuming in my audience a certain level of intelligence and culture. If you are an American, then, I can only apologise, because most of what I will be saying will be sadly beyond you. Easy now, that was only a joke. Seriously, if you haven’t heard of it, its a period drama about rich people and their servants set at the time of the First World War.
To business! In my mind, the problem with episodes 1-3 was that they tried to do too much. With half an hour breaks every three minutes there is not enough screen time to give everybody their due. This is something that Fellowes realised in series one, but until now, he has tried in series two to deal with far too many threads. Take Edith and her farm boy, for example. What on earth was that about?
This episode was back to basics – it focused on what really matters – i.e. the relationship between Matthew and Marry. After all that convenient leave Matthew managed to acquire in the first three episodes (and I hope that all the men in the trenches got to see as much of their loved ones as he has done) it is perhaps unsurprising that episode 4 was the first time that we really missed him. The family’s reaction to the news was heartfelt, and when he entered the room halfway through the song; well, what a surprise! Of course they ruined it with the little duet, but there we go. They were so sweet together.
What a shame he is going to die. No – you say – there is hope! I do not think that there is. The best we might have hoped for was that the series would end with Matthew missing, probably presumed dead. But they have already used that party trick! Throw in the good luck charm, referenced again in this episode and you really have your final scene – a sad, lonely, teddy being trampled into the mud amidst the blood and the screaming. William’s dead too, by the way. He’s much to naive to live. Of course I may be wrong. God knows I hope that I am.
So that was the success story of the episode. But what else happened? Aside from the general banter that has made Downton such a wonderful success, and the scheming of Thomas – prick – and the enigmatic Ms. O’Brien, there were two other love stories at work. I do not want to talk about Anna and Bates. This is because, and I want to make my feelings quite plain here, I do not like Bates. Actually, at the risk of being misunderstood I should say that I really hate him. I am aware of the fact that this may be controversial news. I know there are several of you Bates lovers out there. But to me he is nothing but an insufferable martyr, liable to get his melodrama on at the slightest whiff of trouble. What’s that, my wife’s back? Well there’s no point in talking to anybody, like a sensible person would do. I’d better leave right now with no explanation and a few epically dreadful lines so that, when the people who quite reasonably thought I had betrayed them realise that, in actual fact, somehow I am the good guy, they feel really bad about themselves, and come crawling back. Because that is all I want. Attention. Anna you have let yourself down, girl.
The second romance involved Sybil and Branson and this was the weakest part of the episode. It is a perfect example of what I was talking about at the start of the post. Branson is supposed to be a character you can get behind. He’s young; he’s a liberal; he’s a reactionary. Yet such is the limited screen time that he has been given that he comes across a little creepy. When he tells Sybil that he loves her and that he knows that she loves him, our first thoughts are not ‘aw’, but to the contrary that he is a maniac, because, as far as we are concerned, they have seen each other on three or four occasions. They are a minor couple – this is their lot in life – but there was nothing to stop Fellows helping his audience out by referencing some long trip to London that they went on, just the two of them, or something like that, just to make us aware that they have a story that goes beyond the camera’s lens. This little alliance fails because Fellows does not have the time or the desire to make it real.
Hang on a minute – the shrewd reader might say – earlier you spoke of the need to focus on what matters, but just now you claim that Sybil and Branson – at most a sideplot – require more time. Good God speak sense sir! Surely this is a contradiction. Well – I say to that – it is about prioritising screen time but it is also about using that screen time effectively. That is what Fellows did very well in series one. Even Matthew and Mary, arguably the driving force behind the whole show, had only a handful of scenes together, but when they did, there was a real meaning and intrigue to their exchanges. Compare with Bates and Anna, if you dare, or with Sybil and Branson and you will see what I am talking about.
Branson’s mania and Bates’ general existence aside, though, it was a thoroughly encouraging episode. Here’s hoping for more of the same next Sunday!