In a long-running American show, it’s usually a treat when an old supporting character returns and we get to see how they’re doing with their lives. Sideshow Bob was a longtime favorite until he went the way of the rest of The Simpsons, and it’s easy to see why. But for a show that’s working with six-episode seasons, each the length of a mini-series, bringing one back unless they’re absolutely vital is largely distracting. Really, one of Downton Abbey’s main problems has been the show’s refusal to drop characters, or even just let minor ones sit on the sidelines for a while. Presumably Julian Fellowes feels he’s being gracious in giving everyone at least a few lines every week, but really he’s just diluting the show.
The only particularly relevant-feeling part of the show was given maybe two or three minutes of screentime, focusing on Cousin Matthew’s inability to talk to the Earl of Grantham about how awful the guy is with finances. You’d think it wouldn’t be that difficult, considering that the guy nearly bankrupted Downton Abbey just an episode ago, but as he grows older he’s obviously reluctant to give in, as that would mean admitting that Fellowes is no longer letting him be the Father Knows Best-lead of the show and is passing that title on to the next generation of patriarch.
But while this part of the “Episode Three” was interesting, the rest of it was dominated by three storylines featuring characters who’d been already written off Downton (or should have been…) yet keep popping up. Most frustrating of these was the complete non-starter that was Ethel’s storyline. Ethel was actually largely an unenjoyable part of the second season, too, but here she truly has no place. Her return with the baby seems to serve as simply a reminder that the rich people, in Downton’s world, are nearly always infallible. Why anyone felt that her return would be necessary, or even interesting, is difficult to fathom.
Then there’s the dramatic return of first Tom and then Sybil, on the run from burning down an estate in Ireland that we’re led to believe is similar to Downton. We’re left unsure how involved with any of it Tom really was, but it’s hard to care in any case, as he’s just never been a sympathetic character. Downton’s politics look down upon the idea of revolutions or upward mobility, so Tom is usually a joke and when he’s not, then he’s always in over his head. Their story is supposed to be dramatic, but it’s always been difficult to understand what Sybil sees in Tom and now it gets even harder. Another one of Downton’s problems is that it tends toward a classic unity of space, meaning that action happens offscreen. What we see of the couple is just what’s at Downton, and unfortunately that seems to be the less compelling half of their story.
Speaking of which, then there’s the one storyline that doesn’t take place at Downton Abbey but we’re always still shown, more’s the pity, the tedious adventures of Bates in prison. This time he gets his roommate in trouble for drugs, and as a result is back on the guards’ good side. As usual, there’s nothing engrossing about any of it, and the jail continues to look like a pair of poorly lit sets from the BBC circa 1982.
With two of these storylines resolving anyhow, this episode almost felt skippable, which shouldn’t be the case for a season that’s only seven long. It dragged and went nowhere, and there’s still no sign of an overarching storyline or particular reason for the show to hang around in sight. Its pretentions at telling us something revealing about the past were completely missing in “Episode Three”—an episode like this is just pure soap opera (or in the case of Ethel, Victorian sensation novel), with little redeeming facet in story, character or theme. This was definitely the worst episode the show’s had so far.
•Edith has “reasonable ability.” – Sounds about right.
•I haven’t mentioned it yet, but I do really love that British prisoners still wear a vest and jacket. Sure, it’s a bleak prison, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have some decorum.
•“There always seems to be something of ‘Johnny Foreigner’ about the Catholics.” – Umm… zing?
•I really loved the lengthy period of time it took anyone to get the door. Until Tom gets through the door, it’s a great storyline.
•“No one must know.” – which is why I banged the door as hard as I possibly could and made as much ruckus as possible.
•Sooo Sybil just thought he talked about revolutionary ideas but never met with anyone about plans, ever? Uh huh, right.