Downton Abbey: 3.1

(Spoilers, Darlings!)

All right, I might be lynched here, but was it just me or was last night’s episode of Downton Abbey not up to the usual dramatic level that I’ve come to expect? There were so many things covered, but very few things were covered well.

Honestly, I think they took on too much for one episode – wedding, marriage proposals, visting relatives, money troubles, more murder investigations, cancer, a new footman… I mean, the wedding and guests alone could have been three episodes, so says the Monday morning armchair author. And I am unanimous in  that!

While most of the storylines seemed either frivolous or poorly plumbed, there were two that I particularly enjoyed.

The first being the return of Lady Sybil and her husband (the former chauffeur, *GASP*), Tom Branson. This story got us back to the questions over class and mobility, and area where this show really hums. How does one fit in? Where are the lines? What happens when you’re in that grey area? Allen Leech was impecable as Tom Branson, playing the struggle to remain true to himself and yet find his place within the family.

The scene where it is discovered that the foppish (and poorly acted) young Lord Grey drugged Tom Branson’s drink, was one of my favorite moments. From Tom’s drunk admonishments of everything un-Irish, to the family’s look of discomfort, and the final explosion at the discovery. The scene was near pitch perfect… you know… if the actor that played young Lord Grey has more to work with than “Be Snively Whiplash.”

When old Lord Grey told his son to shut up, I Huzzah’d loud enough to scare the dog. I hope you did too.

The other storyline I liked was “Mrs. Hughes May Have Cancer.” When she first entered the episode, Mrs. Hughes was off – too friendly and cheerful, which sort of disappointed me. There’s something about Mrs. Hughes’ kind, but austere, manner that has always endeared her to me. That river runs deep, my friends. I’ve tried to rationalize the moment away as a prelude to Mrs. Hughes trying to put on a happy face, but I just don’t buy it. A poor choice in an otherwise wonderful storyline.

The beauty of this storyline was the reserved, austerity of Mrs. Hughes juxtaposed to the open-hearted reactions of Mrs. Patmore. Their time with the doctor (Who? No, unfortunately not) and there quiet moments alone were filled with humor and compassion. These are the scenes that Downton Abbey was built on.

My least favorite part of this episode, I’m afraid, was Cora’s mother, Martha Levinson (played by the always awesome Shirley McClaine). Perhaps it was just a let down – the combination of Shirley McClaine and the part of Cora’s mother has had me salivating for months. Yet the part (aside from the amazing costumes) was just Meh-ly written. She had a few great lines, but overall it was just a repetition of the same line, “Stop being English and traditionalist, be American, we’re awesome.”

Well, here’s the thing that I love about Downton Abbey, people show what they’re made of. They’re decisions, what they support, and what they choose to talk about tell us what matters to them – not the fact that they walk through a beautiful hallway announcing what matters to them.

McClaine had a few moments – throwing together a last minute dinner party and the beautiful song she sung in sitting the room. Moments free of tradition and austerity that lit up the Grantham household.

But where was the conflict? The push and pull that we’re so used to seeing between the new and the old, the liberal and conservative, upstairs and downstairs, the English and the Irish? It felt mostly like, “We need to get an American in here somehow…”

And let’s not even discuss the lost fortune. I bought into Mister Bates’ trial, Lady Mary being blackmailed into marriage, and Matthew’s miraculous walking – in part because there was a long, slow, earned progression to these deliciously operatic climaxes. But, “oh yeah, I did invest in a Canadian railroad, so sorry we’ve never mentioned that before and now we will lose the house in a week,” was difficult to swallow. While every plot twist is contrived, the ones that appear out of thin air don’t do a lot to raise my confidence.

Of course, I’ll be watching next week. Even though this episode didn’t meet with my “Downton Abbey Quality” expectations, it’s still three heads above most things on television in terms of writing, acting, direction, and production.

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Posted on January 7, 2013, in Downton Abbey and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. While this episode was uneven, I don’t know if there’s anything that could get me to stop watching this show. It’s so grandiose you can get lost in it, even when it’s lackluster.

    One quibble which I hope they don’t continue to harp on, though, is this: “ooh, it’s 1920, let’s let down our hair!” dialogue that many of the characters, particularly the “I’m American, it’s 1920, now kiss me!” characters, employ. You don’t need to bash us over the head with the theme, Julian Fellowes.

    • I fully support your quibble. They always talk about the “show, don’t tell” in storytelling, and while I don’t always agree with that philosophy, it’s definitely the case in Downton Abbey.

      Shirley throwing together that party and signing to the Dowager Countess was enough to show that she isn’t stuck in tradition. The rest of the conversations could have possibly come afterwards – but mostly, it was a dead horse.

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