Since this season doesn’t air in the US until January, please consider everything I say in this post to be hearsay and thoughts gleaned and paraphrased from others who watched the show in a totally legal fashion.
First, I’m going to start out with a few things that are non-spoilers:
Primarily, I must say that the season started out rather weak. Perhaps my expectations of Shirley MacLaine were too high? Her character was sort of flat and one-dimensional, as far as I’m concerned. The first 2-3 episodes were very disappointing, and I was really worried they were indicative of the series as a whole. But then it turned around. Episode 3 (I think it was) was the best episode they’ve had in a long time, and the rest of the season was full of good moments, great stuff from the Dowager Countess, and some scenes that made me weep. I thought it was a really strong end to the season, and almost met the quality of season 1. It definitely surpassed the second season, in my opinion.
Okay, from here on out, there be spoilers:
This is me politely allowing a gap between non-spoilery and spoilery content.
Okay, to business!
As I said above, I thought episodes 1 and 2 were pretty dreadful. The will-they-wont-they-of-course-they-will rubbish with Mary and Matthew pre-wedding was a huge snooze. Of course they will! Before I even realized I was supposed to be worked up about it, they were already married. They’ve ceased being interesting and are now just tiresome.
I think sometimes my annoyance with the show is that they drag on issues that have no inherent tension, and the really tense moments are generally over in one episodes’ time. There’s a terrible sense of pacing.
The money storyline is a good example of this. It was tedious; it was also the only thing that encompassed every episode of the season. Other issues came and went, but the money was the big one. Can I say I totally agree with Cora’s mom that enough money from that family has already been wasted by Lord Grantham? And what is his brilliant plan for the place? To call that American, Charles Ponzi, who can guarantee a big return in a few weeks’ time. So he’s a real genius when it comes to finance, but he attacks everyone who tries to help or suggest change because he is so insecure about it. It drove me crazy. I find that Lady Grantham (the dowager countess, that is) is much better at embracing change than Lord Grantham, which is ludicrous. And poor Matthew, who was hoping to downsize and lead a simpler life after his marriage (man did he marry the wrong girl for that) instead ends up running the huge Downton estate.
I know that Downton is necessary for the show but that doesn’t mean I agree that it should stay as it is. Were I alive at the time, I would have thought it better to embrace the times and get out of the agricultural money-owning ways of the 19th century and into a more modern frame of mind. Just because the incredible good luck of the Grantham family has allowed them to live like kings for 100s of years does not mean the world owes them. The world does not give out alimony, and current prosperity is no guarantee of the same in future.
So the money situation made me totally uninterested, despite Lord Grantham’s blustering. But the big, game changing issue of the season–Sybil and Tom.
Can I describe how much I cried? Sybil was the only one of those three sisters I didn’t loathe. I adored her, in fact, whereas Mary is entertaining for her bitchiness and Edith is boring as always (in my opinion) So I was none-too-pleased with this turn, though I am happy Tom will be staying at Downton. I love Tom.
I had a love-hate relationship with a lot of this season. The characters enchanted, then disappointed me in turn. Carson was adorable when concerned about Mrs. Hughes, but repugnant in his later dealings with Thomas (I don’t care if it is accurate to the period, it’s awful. I can’t take my modern sensibilities out of the equation, and I hated listening to it). Alfred was bungling and charming at first, and then nauseating in the final few episodes (mostly due to his dealings with Thomas). Edith won my pity at her not-wedding, my affection when she decided to write the newspaper column against her father’s and grandmother’s advice, and then my irritation again by the end of the series. After all, she spent a few episodes last season snogging a married farmer, so how is she repulsed by some casual flirting by a married editor? Pot, kettle, etc.
The problem with Fellowes’ characters is they are all drawn black or white. Sometimes they will slide toward the middle, but most of the time they exist on the edges. I don’t mean necessarily their moral leanings, because Bates, for example, lives very much in the gray. It’s more that what we are supposed to feel for them is very black and white. We are supposed to hate O’Brien in this season, and pity Thomas. Last season it was the opposite. I feel weirdly abused by this all-or-nothing evil always resonating from one or the other. Matthew is always valorous and honorable. Edith is always going to suffer from middle-child syndrome.
There’s a difference between creating characters that can be comprehended as fitting into a recognizable personality type and writing characters that are the trope. It makes their behavior predictable, and that makes me bored.
What I do think is interesting about Fellowes’ writing is that the most compelling characters are usually on the periphery of the plot line. Some examples: Thomas’ reaction to Lady Sybil’s death. Carson’s fears over Mrs. Hughes’ health. The Downton ladies refusing to leave Violet’s brunch after Robert storms in. I think one of the advantages of this era, and the upstairs, downstairs mentality of this era is that there are always people adjacent to the story. There are just so many people involved when you have family and staff living in one house. This provides lots of opportunities for people to overhear and to discover what they shouldn’t know. Add to this the fact that it was a very private time in an already reserved society. Secrets were important and hard to keep. There are a lot of instances where this is taken advantage of in Downton Abbey and I think those are the instances where the show is the most affective.
One final note. That young girl in the final episode was boring and her running off was completely and utterly predictable. It ruined the final episode and I pray that they never have her on again. On the other hand, I truly enjoyed the Dowager Countess’ uncanny ability to trick absolutely everyone into telling the truth. For that only, it was worth it to have her on. But please, don’t bring her back!