Downton Abbey: "Season Three, Episode Two"
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Downton Abbey: "Season Three, Episode Two"

I found myself really enjoying this episode, despite the continuing issues I laid out last week that have evolved into full-fledged flaws. We’re still floating around in a strangely context-less world, where Matthew and Mary have an unrecognizable relationship and the other characters do rather odd things that seem designed for heightened drama. But the cornerstone of this episode is Lady Edith, second sister in nearly every way, and Laura Carmichael pulls off her story so well that despite its melodrama it carries the rest of the episode.

Edith has always had more potential as a character than she’s been given, and much like the character herself, Carmichael has not yet had a chance to stand in the spotlight. For most of last season she was shuttled between B-plots with a short shelf life that left Edith right where she started—desperate and overlooked, again. In the first season Carmichael had a lot more to work with—a smoldering hatred of her older sister which spoke to an inferiority complex that Edith had been carrying around for years. We haven’t seen much of that Edith since then. It is a bit as if the show forgot about Edith’s emotional depth.

Until now. Her story in this episode—in which she is jilted at the altar, at the cusp of grasping the life she has always wanted—has a few issues with consistency and motivation, but Edith herself becomes the emotional lynchpin of the episode, bringing to bear her entire history as the least-important daughter to what transpires. This comes together beautifully in her last line of the episode, when Anna wakes her up on what would have been the first morning of her honeymoon to ask if she should bring Lady Edith some breakfast. Edith says no, for she is to be a useful spinster, and “spinsters get up for breakfast.” That line struck me with its mingled despair and resignation. For once everyone in the house is finally paying attention to Edith, but it is not the kind of attention she wanted.

The fact that this arc works so well on-screen reminded me that Downton Abbey is not really about plausibility of fact, it’s about plausibility of character. This is something Todd talked about a bit in his Homeland reviews—essentially, that we the viewers will put up with quite a bit of plot shenanigans if what occurs feel true to the characters. Despite the plot twists here, Edith’s reaction feels true, as does the rest of the household’s. Even Strallan’s heartfelt apology to her, right before he runs off, feels like something he would say, though it stretches plausibility to think of Anthony “Good God!” Strallan as a temperamental romantic, dooming himself to a life of solitude to fulfill some odd principle of what marriage ought to look like.

Indeed, if there was a broader theme to this episode, it is something like powerful men have principles that the women affected by them do not understand or dudes make bad decisions and the girls gotta deal anyway or even patriarchy sux!!! Strallan’s little speech is all very noble, but where did this sudden attack of conscience come from, and why on earth couldn’t he have spoken to Edith about it in a reasonable way? I’m not saying it’s implausible—on the contrary, I think it’s the type of behavior men felt more entitled to a century ago. You can see this writers putting forth this theme in Lord Grantham’s willful mismanagement of the estate’s finances, too. Last week, the Dowager Countess asked: Didn’t it seem risky, putting all of the money in one scheme? And Mary replied yes, that’s what I said, too. The women can talk about the decisions, but they don’t get to make them. They just cope.

That is probably what the writers think is compelling about this plotline concerning Matthew’s decision to refuse the money that could save the Downton way of life. It certainly does fit into the larger trend of privileged men making selfish decisions. But oh, dear readers, by this point, it’s so stubbornly, blindly, obtusely selfish as to be beyond reason. Matthew is supposed to be feverishly in love with his wife, and yet even upon her repeated assertions that she is going to be devastated at being turned out of the home that she grew up in and intends to preside over as Countess, he refuses based on poorly defined principle. You begin to wonder why Mary married him in the first place.

Readers, I am beginning to fear that Matthew Crawley is not a real character at all. After all, what truly defines him? What are his goals, his ambitions, his personal stakes? I had liked Matthew from the start, as Mary’s unwilling doppleganger, representing that marriage of the traditional and the modern. And yet somehow the essential qualities of Matthew’s character have been pissed away into nothingness. He’s been positioned as the opposition to so many things on the show that he’s largely been defined in the negative—he’s not an aristocrat, he’s not a hunter, he’s not interested in the estate, he’s not dead. But he wears a coat and tails now, and employs a valet, and bought a car, and refuses inheritances now, just as if he was never all not all those things in the first season.

This episode reveals how little is going on beneath the surface with that character—the result of a regrettable combination of bad writing and bad acting. The writers don’t appear to have any idea of what makes Matthew Matthew, as opposed to any other stiff in 1920, and Dan Stevens has apparently given up trying to convey whatever interpretation he had of the character. He did a great job in season one and some of season two, bringing a depth and understanding to this flawed and contradictory character, enough to make him a romantic hero. But the scene where they argue over the letter in bed—after Mary, in her desperation, opens the envelope to find that Lavinia’s father was well-aware of their breakup—is offensive, on levels. It’s bad writing, bad character work, bad acting, and is slowly ruining one of the things I liked most about this show, which was Matthew and Mary’s relationship. It is so hard to believe that Matthew would somewhat purposefully deny his wife her happiness—and accuse her of forgery—and reduce her, the future Countess of Grantham, to asking a scullery maid for “evidence” that Lavinia sent a letter to her father. Really, because all that Matthew needed to change his mind was Daisy’s testimony?

The truth is, we don’t know anything about Matthew that would justify this extended and convoluted arc about his feelings, except that he went on a similar bender about his feelings when Lavinia died of the Spanish flu. I think his guilt is supposed to come off as romantic, but instead it reads as purely narcisisstic. His breakup with Lavinia was so important, apparently, that it up and killed her, and then killed her dad, and then stole a bunch of money from him, and now is going to save the estate so it can play with Ouija boards, like, allll the time. I would be less indignant about this arc if it wasn’t for the fact that it has occupied so much screen time and is presented, strangely, sympathetically, as if any of this behavior is remotely reasonable or even admirable. Even Lavinia is sick of his whining, she told us so from beyond the grave. Honestly, I do not know what they were trying to do with this.

Yes, everything works out well at the end, and I suppose if Mary forgives him than so should I. But ever since season one, Downton Abbey has had trouble grounding their narratives in established characterization. To go back to Todd’s point above, plausibility matters most when we don’t believe the characters, and this is a situation in which I didn’t buy the entire arc, from start to finish. Unfortunately, at this point I’m once-burned, twice-shy of Downton Abbey’s unearned plotlines (remember that time when Matthew was in a wheelchair and miraculously stood up?). It’s lazy writing, which is a disservice both to its fans and to its extremely expensive production budget.

Contrast this storyline to the far quieter drama surrounding Mrs. Hughes’ health scare. In that story, the stakes arise from the established relationships between the characters—specifically, from the devotion we know Carson has for Mrs. Hughes, the woman who shares his life. Nothing needs to be conveniently stated to make it fact, because as viewers, we already know all the necessary information to care about the scene. And sure, maybe we all knew that Mrs. Hughes wasn’t going to end up diagnosed with cancer. But that doesn’t mean we still can’t be touched by Carson singing to himself as he polishes his silver, celebrating her negative test results. It’s earned; it’s a payoff on our continued investment. Surely we can expect returns for other stories besides this one.

Stray observations:

  • Is it just me, or did the Bates storyline make almost no sense at all? I’m kind of hoping it will all make sense in a later episode, but I have to admit that I literally did not understand what I was supposed to feel. Is Bates a creepy cellmate who just threatens people for no reason now? What on earth was that packet hidden in the bed? How did the cellmate alert the guards? Why were they all walking in a circle??
  • So many micro-plots, even less important than the sub-plots, occupied space in this episode that there’s no way I’ll be able to touch on them all. Most of them are below-stairs shenanigans, which usually tend to play for comic effect. Let’s see how they go. 
  • Mrs. Crawley and the Prostitutes would be an interesting name for a band, wouldn’t it?
  • I typically like Elizabeth McGovern, but her acting in this season so far has been embarrassing. I was cringing during the scene where she tries to comfort Edith. Cringing.
  • The UK/US time lapse is making it more frustrating than ever to discuss Dan Stevens’ acting, so SPOILER ALERT: I imagine that those of you who either a) have seen the whole third season already or b) have been following celebrity gossip have an idea as to why Dan Stevens looks like he’s already checked out of the show. 

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