Season four of Downton Abbey, which concluded Sunday night, was all about acceptance. It was about accepting the death of two major characters and the need—for us and the residents of Downton—to move on. Accepting the budding love between a white heiress and a black singer. Accepting the conception of a child out of love—and out of wedlock. And, most of all, accepting the fact that Downton Abbey is a shell of the seductively elegant costume soap opera we all became so addicted to four years ago.
That’s because there’s one thing Downton Abbey refuses to accept is the very thing that’s the supposed to be the crux of the whole damned show: change.
Downton Abbey appeals to us because it is actually very timely, despite its setting in the 1920s. It’s about times changing, a new era being ushered in while an old one limps out, and the characters leading the way to the future butting heads with the ones clinging on to the past. The kernel at the center of Downton Abbey is that ever-appropriate sigh: “Kids these days!” As we all know too well, that’s something that resonates, always.
In Downton’s past, the “kids these days” and their progressive ideas have, truly, been the catalyst for change—and entertainment. Lady Sybil married a chauffeur and eventually everyone warmed up to the idea that class, at least in one instance, is trumped by human character. Lady Edith wrote for a newspaper and actively pursued men, refusing to let herself become the Jan Brady of the Crawley sisters or a listless old maid—equally important feats. Lady Mary embodied the ultimate progressive ideal: a woman can be both confident and a romantic, the strong female heroine we demand on our television dramas these days who is allowed to be obsessed with love.
(Other progressive ideas, sadly, were utter failures. Alas, Lady Sybil’s bold experiment with pantaloons remains the sole time we’ve seen them worn by a woman on this show.)
The importance, and the progressive nature, of Lady Mary’s relationship with Matthew Crawley, it turns out, was far more important to the success of Downton Abbey as an engaging and—as it became this past season—not completely ludicrous television show than we may have suspected.
Oh yes. This season, sadly, was totally ludicrous.
The death of Matthew Crawley, written into the show after the actor portraying him, Dan Stevens, decided he wanted off, left Downton in a bind. In that there was no bind. The fascinating, complex, and, again, progressive romance between Matthew and Mary was the glue that kept the various, teeny-tiny pieces of the show together. Without that binding, the cringe-worthy ridiculousness of those teeny tiny pieces become all the more apparent, as they flit about without structure or purpose in that British countryside wind.
Sunday night’s supersized finale whipped those crazy pieces up into a groan-inducing maelstrom.
Think about all that’s happened this season, and how it was “resolved” in the finale. Valiantly, there was an attempt to reinvest in Lady Mary in her new and—you guessed it!—progressive role as a WWG. That’s Widow With Gumption. Boy, did Mary have gumption this season! Well, that’s not entirely true. First she was just sad for two hours. So sad. We watched her float about, a meandering frown, for two whole hours in the season premiere as she mourned the death of Matthew.
But by the end of the episode she had a new mission, to be the woman who will lead the Downton estate into a profitable future. By the end of the season, after all the headway made on her crusade to get a pig farm for Downton (yes, these are things a season of Downton Abbey is made of: pig farms), the Mary we see is the same Mary who sort of, kind of reviled us back in season one.
Remember that Mary? The Mary who courted suitor after suitor and treated them all like pig poop (see what I did there?) and was kind of awful, until Matthew made her kind of amazing? She was back in full force, with everyone refocusing their gaze from her crusade for pig farms to her crusade to absolute torture the two men who were vying to become her second husband.
Other attempts at recapturing that brazen, progressive spirit that made the characters of Downton’s earlier seasons so exciting were far more, as the kids say, IN YOUR FACE! Specifically, the plot line where that one girl dated that one black guy. I think that one girl’s name is Rose, though she’s never been developed past “pain in the ass stereotype,” so we can’t be sure. The pain in the ass she brought to the residents of Downton this season? She fell in love with a black man.
It had the potential to be truly interesting, and truly entertaining. Imagine the treasure trove of biting one-liners Maggie Smith would deliver about a relative dating a black man. (Please remember the time that this show is set.) But alas, we learn that Rose is only courting the black man to make her mother angry, because she is a petulant teen. But fear not. By the end of the season the pearl-clutching Crawleys reformed her. She was dancing with royalty and a good high society girl. All the excitement of her rabble rousing had been suitably extinguished, along with our enthusiasm for this show.
There were plenty of other disappointments. We all hoped that the storyline involving the rape of lady’s maid Anna, a storyline that attacked by fans of the show as offensive and ratings-pandering, would pay off with something poignant and worthwhile (beyond Joanne Froggatt’s gutting acting performance). But alas, rather than thoughtfully examine the effect of the incident on a servant with little recourse of justice, the show instead made the tragedy all about her husband, the insufferable Mr. Bates.
Will he forgive her? Will he be upset? Will he take matters into his own hands and do something drastic? Will he be punished for hypothetical drastic action? Will he be hanged?
The answer to the last question, sadly for many of us, was no. He may have done something drastic, we learn in the finale. But he does not pay for it. Mr. Bates continues his reign of terror as one of the worst characters on TV.
Another genuinely riveting storyline involved the blossoming of Lady Edith as a sexual, independent, headstrong woman who rebukes her destiny as a sad wallflower in order to make decisions in her life that lead to her happiness, for example falling in love with a man who is married but who is so enamored with her that he moves to another country in order to get a divorce. Her reward for the brave and—yep!—progressive decision? The man is probably dead, she gets pregnant, and she’s forced to give up the baby. Progressive! In the end, she has her redemption. And it is sweet. But it only barely makes up for the distress of watching the season of piling on.
And then we have the biggest storyline of this supersized season finale, which hosts Shirley MacLaine and Paul Giamatti as big guest stars and the potential to make good on the promise of Downton Abbey: the fascinating depiction of change. That storyline, seriously, is some wacko Scooby Doo caper about some dude stealing a letter and an overly complicated and impossible to become invested plan hatched to steal the letter back. They steal it back! And, zoinks!, we really, really don’t care.
That’s because the only thing we’ve ever cared about in Downton Abbey is chronicling the heartbreak and invigoration of its characters as they navigate the uncomfortable waters of change. This year, those waters were boringly calm and still. No one changed. Not Rose, who settled into her role and duties as a high-falutin’ society woman. Not Mary, who is more boy crazy than ever. Not Downton Abbey, which is unable to figure out what to do with itself in a post-Matthew Crawley world.
It’s been a season of baffling, occasionally laughable plot points—which makes the “that can’t possibly have just happened?” last shot actually quite fitting.
The servants are at the beatch. Ms. Hughes and Mr. Carson are walking in the water. Then Mrs. Hughes, it appears, asks Mr. Carson to have sex with her. Because they are old. Cut to black. End of episode.
Well, that would be a change.