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Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Leaving DOWNTON ABBEY Once More

Article first published as Leaving DOWNTON ABBEY Once More on TheTVKing.

*NOTE: This more an opinion piece than my typical review. As a fan of the series and the characters, it serves as a string-of-consciousness musing about the relationships and some of the threads of this past season. Your opinions may differ.

Now that another season of Downton Abbey, the British period drama airing on PBS, has come to an end, we can look back at the fourth season and reflect on what the show did both right and wrong. Overall, despite a gloomy start, it was a much lighter year than the last, and other than one major misstep, the story was quite good.

The finale itself was quite satisfying. Not only do we get the conclusion of some nagging stories, but the cast goes to London, providing a fresh setting. The servants' trip to the beach at the end is even more novel and amusing. There's an exciting story of espionage and scandal that doesn't ruin any of our characters' good names. There are absolutely fantastic moments for both the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) and Mrs. Crowley (Penelope Wilton), always welcome. Plus, Shirley MacLaine returned, and Paul Giamatti's part was much better than expected. It was a nice way to go out.

But really, most fans of Downton Abbey watch for the romance. The main thrust of much of the drama of the show revolves around who will be with who, and what will happen for them. There are other stories, to be sure, but not nearly as many that don't involve love, it seems. So how have the various pairings shifted this season?

A major arc this year involved Lady Mary's (Michelle Dockery) re-entry into the dating world. A wealthy widow, heir to a great estate, cannot allowed to remain single long. She was pursued by two suitors - Anthony Gillingham (Tom Cullen, World Without End), someone she considered "one of her own kind," and Charles Blake (Julian Ovenden, Foyle's War), who seemed out to bring down the aristocracy. Despite the easy decision on paper, Mary found herself torn between the two, unable to choose, even by the season finale.

It's nice to see Mary smile and be happy. She grieved an appropriate amount of time for Matthew, and then allowed both men to grow on her in pleasing ways. Both would make a good match, but I'm glad the question hasn't been settled yet, given how much fun it has been to see them both compete. It would not remain fun if it were stretched out after many years, but another season would be perfectly acceptable. Unlike when Mary was last eligible, there isn't any one man she's destined to be with, so there's a bit of suspense in the arc. As a firm supporter of "Team Blake," I was glad to see Charles get a leg up in the latest installment, hoping that's a sign that he could win in the end. But however it turns out, Mary declaring game on at the end was a terrific turning point for her.

Lady Rose's (Lily James) romantic prospects were not so cheery. I really liked her dalliance with jazz singer Jack Ross (Gary Carr, Death in Paradise) while it lasted, but it did seem pretty clear that a major part of Rose's attraction to Jack was the trouble it would cause. Besides, she's young, and it's enjoyable to see her single and carefree during her big coming out party, leaving the door open for times to come.

I'm not a fan of Tom (Allen Leech) and the school teacher Sarah Bunting (Daisy Lewis) being together. It's not that she's not an intellectual match for him; she is. But I don't see the chemistry and can't help but think Tom needs to determine his own path forward between the worlds before getting remarried. The arc of Tom feeling stuck in the middle of his roots and his new life has grown weary, but that's exactly why it's time for him to find a calling to dedicate himself to.

On the other hand, I am certainly in favor of Baxter (Raquel Cassidy) and Molesley (Kevin Doyle) being a couple. Molesely has been through some real down times, and while that befits the personality of his character, he doesn't deserve many of his troubles, and its gratifying to see him smile. Baxter spends much of this year being bullied by Thomas (Rob James-Collier), and it's awesome to see Molesley stand up for her, her knight in shining armor, an unlikely role for him to be cast in. That makes their pairing so perfect. Can we please see them marry next year?

So far, the servants have not had a good run of marriages. The only pair portrayed is Anna (Joanne Froggatt) and Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle), and they've seen nothing but misery. This season's story of Bates killing Anna's rapist is depressing and sucky, something unnecessarily piled on. Mary almost turning Bates in is also completely unacceptable and out of character. Basically, everything surrounding this plot didn't belong in Downton Abbey and served as the significant weak point in an otherwise good year. Thank goodness it's over.

The other bit of bad luck is that annoying Daisy (Sophie McShera) didn't take the job offer in America, but at least we got rid of the almost-as-annoying Ivy (Cara Theobold) in the process. Now it's time for Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) to hire some decent help.

The season finale this year hints at something between Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) and Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan). Yes, there have been signs of this before, but never such an obvious moment as when they hold hands while wading into the sea. The show might never "go there" for them, but wouldn't it be sweet if it did? There's obviously deep affection between them, and fans would love to see it. Why not?

Lastly, we get to Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael). Her love lost and her baby given up, she sinks into a dark place. This story was mixed for me. I absolutely loved how Lady Rosamund (Samantha Bond) comes to her aid, and was pleasantly surprised that the Dowager Countess acted mostly without judgment towards Edith. I also liked how Edith ignored them both and went to get her child back, something very much in keeping with her independent personality. The resolution, though, that Edith would have Tim (Andrew Scarborough) secretly raise the child for her was weak sauce. Edith needs to act like a mother, no matter what her family thinks.

In all, though, season four was a good one for Downton Abbey. Some have complained that it's disjointed and makes drama just for the sake of drama, and it does. But it's beautiful and well acted. Even when the writers make dumb mistakes, they usually get sorted out or moved past quickly enough for the show to go on, and there's always other examples of good writing in the same episodes. It's soapy but it's just different enough from other soapy works to really land. I look forward to season five.

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