At this point in Downton Abbey’s run, there are few things that should really surprise the audience. The show has run through many of Victorian-era fiction’s most hackneyed tropes, frequently without putting much of a spin on them or hiding their pulpy, sensationalistic undertones. However, the show has never tried to hide that it’s a soap opera with class implications, so there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. It’s always been the execution that makes the show so maddening.
In “Episode Four,” though, we have the first instance this season of an A-plot really working well on all levels. Last week Sybil and Tom returned to the estate on the run from the law, and Sybil was far along in her pregnancy. Too far to leave, certainly, and even Tom, whose choices are usually baffling and ill-justified, agreed that she needed to stay in Downton and have the baby there. This week almost everything is about the baby, and while some of the peripheral plots were still messy, the emotional core of the birth and death afterwards were strong and real. It was a soap opera story still, but for once the characters didn’t treat it as one.
As soon as two doctors enter the equation, we’re signaled that there will be some heavy complications. Even so, it wasn’t about them so much as what choices would be made from their diagnosis, and as we’ve seen with the rest of the season the previously infallible Lord Grantham (admittedly, unintentionally) killed his daughter. The highs and lows surrounding the birth were excellently done and led to the best moment of the season so far. Right before the episode closed, Cora says she wants to see off Doctor Clarkson, who Grantham didn’t listen to, and tells her husband to essentially go screw himself. The Lady Dowager says it’s not his fault, as does everyone else, but of course it is, and Cora’s not going to forget it.
The plotting for Downton is usually so heavy that there are few real choices characters make; instead they play their role and stories just kind of unfold. But here we had real choices and a life on the line, and it looks like a permanently irreconcilable difference between Grantham and Cora may have resulted. One of Downton’s themes has been looking at why the upper class have the money, and one of the implicit reasons has been that they’re always correct. Grantham’s decision here questions his position as well, and Matthew looking to change Downton’s management right afterwards reflects this.
Much of the downstairs action is centered on the birth and death as well, and while the servant half of the cast has long been far less nuanced than upstairs, here there was some excitement too. As pat as Ethel’s storyline may be, I appreciate whenever events cause some dissent, with the cast split on an issue. Even the Bates storyline had some life to it, in that there’s some change going on. The guard and prisoner conspiring together was tiresome, but the idea of getting Bates out of there sometime soon and letting the show focus on anything else is wonderful.
Downton Abbey always has a difficult time trying to figure out how far it wants to take its pulp urges. The show wants events to happen, big events every single episode, and it would rather not give characters inner lives because that would slow down its momentum. It requires many creaking gears to constantly move in order to fulfill its desire for these setpiece moments—we’ve only had four episodes this season, yet there have been two weddings, a birth, and a death. However, the sheer lack of speed here, the respect for Sybil and Tom and their child, led to a much more enjoyable episode. My hope is that the rest of the season can continue this pattern, stop worrying so much about big intrigue and monumental changes and give us, and the characters, a few moments to breathe.