Downton Abbey consists of regular plot points revisited over and over, ebbing and flowing, but always, like the tide, returning. Plot points such as the Dowager Countess and Isobel’s sparring, Tom’s confusion over where he fits in, Mary’s confusion over whether she wants to have emotions, Thomas-es scheming to no avail and no clear purpose, Mrs. Hughes-es Chamber of Secrets, Lord Grantham’s generational and class angst, Carson’s generational and class angst, Lady Grantham’s low IQ, Molesley’s employment prospects, finding Edith a reason to stay alive, finding Rose opportunities to be immoral, finding Anna opportunities to be moral, finding Alfred a cooking job, finding Mrs. Patmore an electrical appliance, finding Baxter an electrical outlet (she loves that sewing machine!), finding Bates someone to kill.
Basically, watching this show is like staring at a carousel: the same horses go by over and over again, except every once in a while there’s a swan. Or an exotic animal. But other than that, it’s just the same horses going around and around.
Just a few of the many regular horses making the rounds:
Horse #1: Lady Grantham’s Commentary on the Painfully Obvious: “Oh Edith, you look so sad. Why are you sad?” Lady G., let us count the ways. First, there is the fact of her unfortunate appearance, which is not so much a matter of her features as a matter of the kicked-dog demeanor she trudges around with. Then, there is the fact that Matthew didn’t want to tour churches with her, the fact that Mary has never liked her, that her elderly neighbor jilted her once, then came back, then jilted her at the altar, humiliating her in a place chock full of every single person the family knows, then her sister died, then her remaining sister said that she would never, ever like her going forward, then her father was disappointed in her writing letters to newspaper editors feebly proclaiming that women are people too, then the editor to whom she has written a letter falls in love with her, but then it turns out that he’s already married to someone else, then he says he’s becoming a German citizen so that he can get a divorce and marry her so she thinks, great! I’ll go ahead and get pregnant by you. What can possibly go wrong? Then her new paramour disappears somewhere in the Fatherland, circa 1920-something — either he’s in a cabaret wearing eyeliner or he’s holed up with Hitler somewhere, ranting about awful modernism is and helping design the Nazi party logo, which are the two options in interwar-era Germany, according to History anyway — and now she’s stuck at Downton, with only a hard-hearted helmet-haired sister and an imbecilic cousin for company. (Tom’s never spoken a word to her as far as I can tell and Granny and Isobel aren’t fully aware she’s alive. No wonder her eyes are darting around the room like a cornered animal every time her father and mother try to have a conversation with her — which happened more times in this episode than in all the previous ones put together — Edith can’t believe they’ve actually noticed her and further, that they claim to care.) But Edith! Lady G wants to know, why are you so sad? What’s wrong?
Another one of Lady Grantham’s regular observations, usually made while lying in bed or wearing a dressing gown: “Poor Carson. I thought he was going to have a heart attack. Do you think he’ll ever get used to living in the 20th century?”
No. For the hundredth time, No.
On another note, it was delightful to see Lady G out and about, if only at that “dreadful hotel”, and it was awfully nice of her to take up for Bates and Anna and participate in the farce that they were equals in order to embarrass the maitre d’. And Lady G showed amazing insight by recognizing that Bates and Anna seemed unhappy, weeks and weeks after everyone else had noticed. But at least she came to this realization at some point, so that felt like real character development.
Horse #2: Mary’s Grumpiness. Mary, with her stoney visage and aforementioned helmet hair seems like the oldest person on earth. Or, at the very least, older than her grandmother. And a whole lot grumpier. And being nice to one person in her life (Matthew, after years and years of being mean to him) does not make her likeable. Though there was that moment in the nursery this episode, where she and Tom and Isobel were sitting around telling boyfriend/girlfriend stories like 14-year-olds at summer camp and Mary gave that little speech about being all like, so, I think he’s going to propose? And I like, totally hope he will? and while she was talking she seemed so happy and young. Then Isobel and Tom each said their piece about being in love. It was a strange and not very believable moment, but very touching and lovely at the same time. Especially when Isobel says after a pause “Well…aren’t we the lucky ones”. Also, we saw the Nanny in this scene. Viewers, we are moving forward in the progression of the evidence for Nanny’s existence, from no mention of Nanny, to a mention of Nanny, to a glimpse of Nanny. The kids were missing in this episode, however, though we did have a long look at George’s empty highchair as Isobel sat in front of it during her heart-to-heart with Mary and Tom. (My favorite part of this episode. The heart-to-heart, not the empty highchair.)
The new setup of Grumpy Mary fighting with Napier’s boss (can’t remember his name) will provide lots of opportunities for her to grumpily nurse a secret crush on him while grumpily complaining about how hard the aristocracy has it these days while Lady G giggles in the background.
Exotic Animal: Thomas Barrow’s Scheming Comes to Nothing. Why is Thomas always so desperate to find out what is going on upstairs? He enlists lady’s maid after lady’s maid, hoping beyond all reasonable understanding that some juicy tidbit will come his way. I’m not sure what he is looking for, since nothing could top the most outrageously shocking incident all the way back in ’12, you know, that time Thomas was blackmailed into sneaking a Turkish Prince/diplomat into Mary’s room where he died in her bed? Before she dragged him across the house so that no one would find out? These days the news from upstairs is decidedly more tame. Baxter needs to just turn to Thomas and say, So you wanna know what’s going on upstairs, Thomas? I’ll tell you what’s going on upstairs: a big fat nothing. Nothing is going on up there. Unless you consider Lady G. reading a book while sitting on her window seat and me hemming yet another new dress on my sewing machine to be big news.
Maybe, in his desperation for action and excitement, Thomas is the viewers’ proxy. I’ve actually become sympathetic to Thomas’ go-nowhere hopes and dreams. Now that the door has slammed shut to Thomas being Lord G’s valet, O’Brien’s smoking buddy and Jimmy’s special friend, what is left for Thomas? Nothing. The theme of Downton Abbey.
Horse #3: Lord Grantham’s Emasculation. Not only are the ladies of Downton always telling Lord G what’s what, from throwing birthday parties to raising pigs to just who-it-is who will be traveling with him as his valet, now we find out that he is also being ordered around by his mother-in-law from thousands of miles away. She has summoned him to America to lend credibility to her no-good son, and Lord G. is dutifully boarding ship to steam over there and do her bidding. Lord G. needs to tell a few people to shove off, starting with Shirley MacLaine. (For all our sakes.)
Horse #4: The Dowager vs. Isobel Crawley. This regular plot point is at least entertaining, if repetitive, and now we have the doctor, Isobel’s toadie/sidekick, openly acting as referee. The viewers agree with the doctor’s call: game, set, match to the Dowager, every time. And that scene in this episode, the one at dinner, where the Dowager coolly assesses Isobel’s motivations provides amazing insight into why the Dowager always triumphs. Without the aid of degree in psychology or even a belief in the benefits of counseling, the Dowager completely dismantles Isobel’s self-righteousness, implying that it is possible for moral indignation to become a sort of vice, as it has for Isobel. As an aside, when the writing is this good, as it sometimes is, it makes me miss the show that Downton Abbey could be. If only every scene and plot line were as illuminated as this one.
Horse #5: Edith’s Failures. Already discussed. Already so numerous. Already dreading the failures to come.
Horse #6: The Future of Downton. This recurring plot point is so boring, fraught as it is with tax bills and crop returns and soil nutrients and tenant truancy and clearing brush and mending fences and….so, so sleepy…must stop…listing problems with…the estate…before…I…fall…asleep…*snore*
Swan #1: Rose and Her Ways. Oh Rose. She is actually just an ugly duckling posing as a swan. Hopefully she makes just one quick turn around the Downton Abbey carousel before we have to watch another season with her character lurching from plot point to plot point. Quick, Lord G! Send that girl to India to join her parents! That way she can make out with a scantily-clad Dalit snake charmer and embarrass the family in Imperialist style. She and O’Brien would get along great.