Poor Matthew died as Season 3 ended. We all sat in our seats as if dumbstruck, certain that Season 4 would begin with a resounding bang, including our attendance at his funeral and wake. Instead, viewers have been treated to a season of tepidness. Julian Fellowes has taken us on a journey in a Sargasso Sea of his own making, circling around familiar story lines and swirling his characters in a holding pattern until he can find a way to break them out.
Where are the high stakes conflicts? Where are the intriguing story lines that kept us on the edge of our seats from week to week? (And, no, the rape scene does not count. Sorry, Julian.)
Granted that Fellowes was not given enough time by ITV to rest on his laurels and breathe before meeting the next season’s writing deadlines. Granted that the goings on at the Abbey still provide some of the best TV drama on our schedules, but none of us could have predicted the steady decline in the riveting story lines from earlier seasons. (Before I continue, I must share that my friend, Hillary, who watched each episode with me, thinks that I am being much too harsh on this season, and that my neighbors, whose judgments I trust, found this season to be an improvement over Season 3.)
Including a lack of time to develop his stories and characters, Fellowes’ decision to remove the writers who helped to make Season One a resounding success didn’t help matters. So, let’s examine the state of Season Four’s tepitude (Episodes 3-6 ), shall we? It is 1922, 6 months after Matthew Crawley’s death.
The earl’s a nice old-fashioned man who gives a tenant farmer’s son a chance to pay back his daddy’s bills, but, then, in Epidsode 6, he’s shipped off to America to help his brother in law. We’ll see him in the Christmas special, but, still, tepid.
Cora is showing more backbone, but she still has no taste in ladies maids. She loves having her grand babies in the house, although Tom is threatening to move himself and baby Sybbie to America. Cora has no control over Rose, or Edith, for that matter. Tepid.
Rose is a flapper who likes to rebel. Her romance with beautiful Jack Ross (love his voice and brilliant white teeth) is, well, predictable.
Violet and Isobel are becoming strange bedfellow friends. Neither woman is given much to do, which has been disappointing. Violet’s been obsessed with petty theft of her things by a new young gardener (Pegg). She has very little proof, but she hates to be wrong and her stubbornness leads us into familiar territory. In the end she shows her good heart by rehiring Pegg, whom she had fired. Then she gets sick and is nursed back to health by Isobel, whom she slowly starts to accept as a friend. Not a major story line, to be sure. And what happened to the hints of romance between Isobel and Dr. Clarkson in Season 3? He’s not even listed as a major character on PBS’s site for Season 4. Tepid. Tepid. Lame.
Thomas is still a snake, but one without a riveting story line. He’s lost O’Brien, his ally in nasty schemes, and has been reduced to plotting behind the scenes via Baxter, Cora’s new ladies maid. Baxter’s obviously reluctant to play along. She’s capable and willing (showing others how her sewing machine works), but, frankly, her story line so far is … diddly, insignificant. You get the drift. As for Thomas, he’s been shipped off to America along with the earl, so we can assume that they’ll both show up in the final installment. Lame
Mrs. Hughes is a nice motherly figure with whom all can share their secrets. Mr Carson remains an old-fashioned fatherly figure who keeps everyone in their place. And Mrs. Patmore is anything but a futurist. No change here. Their story lines are predictable, but, in this case, is that a bad thing?
Bates learns of Anna’s rape, relieving her of the guilt of omission but raising her anxiety that he’ll eventually go out and shoot the bastard, which he will, if Bates’s dark ruminations are an indication. “Your husband’s a brooder, and brooders brood.” Every time we hear their “theme”, we are reminded of the dark side to their story line. (They can never be happy for long. Even their night out is fraught with difficulties, except for Cora’s interventions.) Episode six ends with an image of Bates casting an evil eye in Mr. Green’s direction, leaving the viewers with a sick feeling that Seasons Two and Three are about to be repeated in the Bates/Anna “woe is us” story line. These star-crossed lovers are still rotating in a Sargasso Sea of repeated plot lines.
The Clueless Chauffeur
In yet another moment of stupidity, Tom Branson beds Edna Braithwaite, the scheming maid who was laid off last season for bedding him in the first place, but who inexplicably returns as O’Brien’s replacement as Cora’s lady’s maid. Tom was a chauffeur, right? So what’s to prevent him from driving outside of the village to find nookie at a safe distance? This plot line is stupid to the nth degree. Plus, does anyone really think that we’ve seen the last of Edna? Tom’s entertained the idea of taking himself and baby Sibbie off to America for a new life, which leaves Cora in a tizzy. We do get a whiff of a new romantic interest when Tom attends a political rally in Ripon. Despite many possibilities, Fellowes has poor Tom whirling around a Sargasso Sea of repeated plot lines. Where is the old Tom’s political fire? We miss that.
Edith. Oh, poor, poor Edith.
Edith finally gets her man, but then he disappears into the bowels of poverty-stricken, post World War One Germany. In his absence, she’s worried that she might be pregnant after a night of illicit love. What was Fellowes thinking? This season was Edith’s chance for a breakaway story line that would turn her into a strong and independent woman, instead we merely get … the same old, same old. Edith’s chance at happiness is snatched away when she finds out she’s pregnant and staring at the possibility of carrying a bastard and facing society’s censure. Fellowes missed a major opportunity to elevate Edith’s growth as a character to another level. He has her rotating around a Sargasso Sea of repeated plot lines – that of the loser sister. Disappointing.
Lady Mary’s story arc: a trio of men and a passel of pigs
Good grief. What made the Mary/Matthew romance riveting was the sexual tension between the two characters. They were attracted and repelled at the same time, and viewers sat on the edge of their seats waiting for their fights to end, their first passionate kiss, first reconciliation, first breakup, second reconciliation, second breakup … well, you get the drift. Their romance was played out against a backdrop of serious, catastrophic events – the sinking of the Titanic and loss of Downton’s heir, the possibility of losing the entire estate due to bad investments, World War One, Matthew’s engagement to another, the influenza epidemic, etc. When the couple finally married we all sighed a collective breath of relief. Aaaah. And then they conceived the heir, George. Aaaah. But then a truck drove into Matthew’s path and splat! – the end of an epic romance and abrupt end to Season 3.
At the start of Season 4, we were not even privy to his funeral (bad decision), but given just a glimpse of his grave. This season began six months after Matthew’s death, with Mary walking around the Abbey like a zombie. She’s sad. She’s grieving. She can’t move. Her lower lip is as stiff as the upper. Tepid and predictable.
Then a childhood friend waltzes in (Lord Tony Gillingham) and she sorta, kinda perks up. No spark. No sexual tension. This new beau is no Matthew. I was expecting an actor on the order of a Benedict Cumberbatch or Richard Armitage. What we got instead was Anthony Foyle, a handsome man, to be sure, but one who’s chin I find worrisomely on the weak side. He’s in love with Mary, who’s still in love with Matthew, so, realizing she’s not about to budge, he puts Mary on the spot and says something like: Before I leave, promise to become my wife. If you do, I won’t get engaged to Mabel, a woman I don’t love. If you say no, you know my situation, I must get married. Mary resists. Smart woman. She manages a twinge when she thinks about her lost opportunity, but we suspect it was just indigestion. This lifeless story line can’t compare to the real character conflict offered up in previous seasons.
Then there’s Evelyn Napier’s return. He who is interested in Mary but introduced her to Pamuk. ‘Nuff said. His interest in Mary is still palpable, but she rebuffs him at every turn. Napier never was an interesting character to begin with, except in his role as facilitator. This time he brings a guest in the form of Charles Blake, his boss and a government administrator. Blake, who served during World War I alongside Tony Gillingham, studies whether large estates can adapt and survive in a post-war society. He frankly doubts whether this can be accomplished, especially at the Abbey. Worse, he fails to share Napier’s enthusiasm for Mary, who, to give him credit, comes off as stiff as an ironing board. But there is chemistry between the two, which was sorely lacking with the other two gents. Sparks fly twixt Mary and Blake as they disagree on every topic, and while they might be failing to “connect” socially, they are surely noticing one another.
The pigs arrive just when Tom is attending a rally in Ripon and no farmer is around to care for them. During an after dinner walk, Blake and Mary discover that the pigs, who are hopefully going to save the Abbey’s bacon, are dehydrated from lack of water. For hours Mary and Blake toil to save them. Mary mired in muck attracts Blake’s interest. They have a mud fight. They laugh. The fact that she can scramble eggs really twirls his cookies. By this time, Mary, a six-month widow, has acquired three suitors. Napier’s obviously out of the running. Gillingham piques her interest now that he’s engaged. But Blake? Well, his indifference-turned-to-admiration is sure to earn a widow’s heart. Or will it? Isn’t all this romantic intrigue over Mary while she’s still grieving for Matthew too soon? You decide.
Good grief. How sad is the quadrangle Fellowes conconted? Daisy’s angry. Daisy’s sad. Daisy mopes around. All because of Alfred, who aspires to be a chef now that he realizes he can’t have Ivy, a very uninteresting scullery maid. Jimmy’s story line intersects with theirs and it’s … you guessed it, tepid. He’s just another humdrum character. Alfred, who, as he leaves, acknowledges to Daisy that her romantic interest in him will never be returned, says goodbye to them all. Ho-hum. Yawn.
Where’s William’s daddy when you need him, and why hasn’t he come around to visit Daisy and tempt her with the real possibility of running her own farm and becoming a woman of substance? Hints were made all last season, but the result up to Episodes 6 is … nothing. I had imagined that our resourceful Daisy would make a success of herself this season and haggle with Mrs. Patmore over the price of fresh produce. A missed opportunity – big time.
The costumes. Do the 1920’s costumes really compete with Edwardian clothes? Click on my Pinterest boards and decide for yourself. I rather think that the Crawley women look dowdy compared to seasons past.
Reading the PR spin on PBS’s website, one would have thought that our high expectations would have been met. Were they? Have I left out anything important? Do you agree or disagree with my assessment? Feel free to leave your thoughts, pro or con.
Now, let the sparring begin!
Image links and attributions:
Image, Indiana Fireworks Explosion@ Daily Mail