Just Kill Mr. Bates Already! How to Save ‘Downton Abbey’
As the Season 4 finale approaches, there’s only one way Downton Abbey can save itself—by killing its most irritating character.
When it comes to TV, I’m one of the least bloodthirsty spectators around. Seriously. I rarely despise a particular character, and even when I do, it’s not like I spend every Sunday night rooting for him to come down with a serious case of disembowelment. I tend to believe that even the crappiest parts serve a purpose. They advance the plot. They make the rest of the cast look better by comparison. They ensure, at the very least, that each episode is an hour long. In other words, I’m a lover, not a killer. Live and let live—that’s what I always say.
And yet for the past few years a murderous rage has been festering inside of me. It started off small: a hint of annoyance here, a flutter of incredulity there. But in recent weeks, something has changed. My fury has grown. My bloodlust has burgeoned. And now all of a sudden I find myself consumed by an immense, irrepressible wrath. I can remain silent no longer. I must see this character die.
I am referring, of course, to Mr. Bates.
On Sunday, PBS will air the Season 4 finale of Downton Abbey, and with it the next chapter in the seemingly interminable saga of John Bates—valet of Lord Grantham, husband of Anna Smith, bane of my existence. My fervent hope is that Sunday’s episode will show him slipping on a bar of soap, steering an automobile into a large oak tree, stepping in front of a speeding lorry, or experiencing heart failure during sexual intercourse—in short, anything that will turn him without further ado into a carcass and free us all from enduring another second of his miserable story.
Mind you, I have no issue with Bates the character. He survived a penniless childhood and a brutal war and emerged by all accounts an admirable chap. He is loyal to Lord Grantham, his old foxhole chum. He loves Anna madly. OK, so he used to imbibe to excess, but he no longer partakes. All in all, Bates strikes me as a good upstanding Englishman—the epitome of stiff-upper-lip resolve and restraint. He always tries to do the right thing. Can’t fault him for that.
I don’t blame actor Brendan Coyle for my lethal ire toward Bates, either. He’s a talented thespian with a long list of plaudits to his name: an Emmy nomination, a BAFTA nomination, an IFTA nomination, a Laurence Olivier Award, and an award for Outstanding Broadway Debut. He brings a palpable sense of decency and a pleasantly crinkly face to the role. I can’t imagine anyone doing it better.
Instead, Bates deserves to die because Downton Abbey creator and writer Julian Fellowes has failed for several seasons now to give him a reason to exist. Actually, let me rephrase that: Fellowes has failed for several seasons now to give him a reason to exist that is not idiotic, irritating, implausible, and deeply, depressingly tedious. Others have noted the series’ “Bates problem” before, but no one has ever considered it in its totality. The scope of Fellowes’s failure is vast.
The troubles began as early as Season 1, when footman Thomas and lady’s maid O’Brien framed Bates again and again for stealing something he didn’t steal—a snuff box, a wine bottle—and Bates again and again refused to exonerate himself. The plotline was fine at first—Thomas can’t stand to see a cripple take his job; Bates is too morally righteous to engage in self-defense—but after a while it got old and Bates started to seem like a constipated martyr. Season 2 was even worse: Bates’s tiresome insistence that he was not free to marry the love of his life, Anna; the tiresome subplot about his psychotic ex Vera and her arsenic-laced meat pie; and the tiresome framing of Bates—yet again!—for Vera’s death.
By the time we got to Season 3, every scene that featured Bates had become a brutal, monotonous ordeal, unless you were the sort of masochist who felt it was necessary to cut away from the glittering goings-on at Downton in episode after episode in order to confirm that Bates was still in prison, grunting and wondering where all his letters from Anna were. When the season was finally, blessedly over, I concluded that the best way to understand Downton was as an elaborate televisual torture device meant to transform Brendan Coyle’s life into a waking nightmare. Fellowes must be punishing this man for something, I thought. There is no other way to explain such sadism.
Season 4 has convinced me that I was right. It started out well enough; Anna’s rape seemed like a clever, affecting way to explore the gender mores of a previous era. But alas! Fellowes quickly contorted what could have been a resonant subplot into the most ridiculous Bates storyline yet, forcing Anna to shun her husband because she feared that if he found out he would instantly snatch up the nearest blade, plunge it deep into the black heart of the offending valet, and condemn himself to the hangman’s noose.
Never mind that Bates, despite having something of a temper, had managed to maintain a near-superhuman amount of self-control in previous confrontations; or that he had already been tried for murder once and would presumably not wish to repeat the experience; or that he would likely hesitate before committing any crime that would sever him from his beloved Anna for all eternity. Anna was convinced that BATES WOULD MURDER, and that was that. It was merely the latest and most egregious example of Fellowes trying (and failing) to keep us interested in a boring, badly written romance by manipulating his characters to do things that aren’t true to who they are—and for me it was the last straw.
Last week’s episode ended with Bates slipping off suspiciously to York and Mr. Green, the rapist, suspiciously walking into a lorry. We’re supposed to suspect that Bates did it, and I’m guessing our suspicions will be confirmed or contradicted in the finale.
I, for one, hope that poor Bates is guilty. That way he can be executed in a jiffy, and Anna can be widowed, and the rest of us can go back to enjoying a show about people who aren’t Mr. Bates.
But my hunch is that Fellowes chickened out. So let me make a modest proposal. If you are reading this, Brendan Coyle, please recall Dan Stevens. He was the actor who played Matthew Crawley. After rising Lazarus-like from his wheelchair in the second season, he decided to leave Downton and try his luck in Hollywood. Fellowes was forced to off Stevens’s character. The series had devoted far too much time in Season 3 to scenes of Matthew and Lady Mary lounging happily in their pajamas anyway, and it improved as a result of Stevens’s departure. The clear highlight of Season 4 has been the parade of suitors nipping at Mary’s heels.
So listen up, Brendan Coyle. Come to L.A. Pursue your starry-eyed dreams. I have a nice little house out here with a bedroom to spare. It’s yours for as long as you’d like. All you need to do is tell Julian Fellowes that you’re fed up. That you’ve had enough. That the torture must end. That Bates must die.
Because, honestly, nothing would be worse than another season of Bates—for you, for us, for the future of Downton Abbey. So let’s make this happen, Brendan Coyle. Have your people call my people.