I have to credit Downton Abbey for finally having an episode without a huge dramatic hook. “Episode Five” worked to develop ongoing stories from the season, deepening previous intrigue and resolving loose threads from Sybil’s death. That’s a lot of what I’ve hoped to see more of this entire season, but it didn’t quite work because the show’s direction has become so histrionic. Although little of any lasting consequence occurred in the episode, the huge music cues and shouting would have you believe otherwise. Say farewell to the quiet episodes of Downton’s past, as “Episode Five” will tell you that there’s no point too small to shout about.
Admittedly, this is because many of the episode’s issues seem far smaller from a modern point-of-view than they would to those in the 1920s, but that mostly creates a tonal disconnect between the audience and the show. The episode begins with a large row about whether Tom and Sybil’s child will be baptized as Catholic or Anglican. The main thing this serves to do is show the Earl overreact to something, but the heavy emotions all around feel unjustified. The world does not hinge on this event, and after all this is in the wake of a family member’s death. The episode seemed very confused about how long it had been since her death, as did the characters and how they treated the theoretically solemn aftermath.
The show implies that this anger is simply how the Earl is dealing with his daughter’s death, but moreso it simply emphasizes his anger at, well, practically everything that doesn’t go his way. He’s gone from the calm, collected father knows best to a raging, irrational killjoy in this third season. One of the reasons why this season has fallen flat is because characters have gone about their storylines regardless of who we knew them to be before. The man who’s ready to kill Matthew all season long at the slightest mention of his incompetence isn’t the same problem-solver we saw in season one, and there’s no plot arc to explain this distinction. Suddenly, he’s just a jerk.
The second half of the episode centers on Mrs. Patmore assisting Ethel in cooking a meal for the ladies, going against Carson’s edict to treat her like a leper. This feels more reasonable than the christening debate, but unfortunately it’s just as didactic. The women, Mrs. Patmore and Isobel in particular, are right. The Earl is wrong, as is Carson, the downstairs patriarch, and it’s simply a story to illustrate how horrible things were back then. The Earl’s explosion is unwarranted, of course, but that’s the point, and it dilutes an otherwise important, and unfortunately missing, scene. The women’s discussion of events such as the christening or Edith’s prospective column in the newspaper is enjoyable, the type of thing that makes sense to show and was one of the highlights of Downton early on, but the show shuts down that possibility just as obnoxiously as the Earl did.
All seems to be forgiven at the end of the episode, though, when due to the Dowager Countess’ machinations, Dr. Clarkson lies about Sybil’s chances for survival during the birth. It’s a clever storyline that helps add depth to Maggie Smith’s character, letting her for once be more than a one-liner machine. It was my favorite part of the episode, especially since it had no obvious right and wrong. There was moral gray area, something the show’s increasingly thrown to the sidelines.
Last week I said that it looked like perhaps the Bates-in-prison storyline was done, but it looks like I spoke too soon. Unnecessary complications that are easily resolved got in the way, thereby removing all momentum and stalling us off for another week. I’m hoping for Bates’ return just as much as Anna is at this point, simply because I can’t stand his imprisonment wasting any more of my time.
I still enjoyed this episode more than I did the first half of the season, but it wasn’t a true return to form. Julian Fellowes seems no longer interested in the quiet show he originally created, one where the important moments came from whispers and secret meetings. The Downton he wants to make now is one of violence and wild emotions, sudden anger and births and deaths, with little time left for those moments in between. Unfortunately, that isn’t where his skill set lies, nor is it why I enjoyed Downton in the first place.
•“When one loses a child is it ever really older?” – I remember when people called Downton a subtle show. See also: “I think it’s because the world isn’t going your way. Not anymore.”
•All of a sudden Mary and Matthew are into each other again? So all of that time spent setting up their resentment was for nothing?
•Carson just happens to be watching while Mrs. Patmore leaves, uh huh. I realize sensation novels, a genre the show has joined completely in the third season, are full of these, but that doesn’t keep them from being tiresome.
•“What’s she doing?” “She’s blooming.” No, like, what’s she actually doing? She’s not a flower.