Downton Abbey’s third season continues to be a structural marvel, and while that’s a fascinating thing to behold, I mostly mean that in a bad way. It has some obvious oddities, such as already featuring the season’s second wedding, but this doesn’t feel particularly forced. No, the strangeness comes from the way this episode works to largely repudiate all the more important plot threads from the first episode. Few shows do that—I suspect because it’s kind of insane and doesn’t work particularly well.
That’s not to say that all this resolution had no effect, as in many places they signaled some slight or large psychological changes in characters. Rather, it’s that these quick fixes stopped the season’s momentum dead. For instance, that cancer scare Ms. Hughes had? Well, it turns out, unsurprisingly, to be nothing at all. That doesn’t mean that it wasn’t revealing, as it foregrounded the relationship between her and Mr. Carson, but there’s little about this we didn’t know already, and for the most part it was just a waste of time. The oddity of having Ms. Patmore be the one involved with this when earlier it was Ms. Hughes worrying about Ms. Patmore’s health problems managed to make this storyline feel not only unnecessary but also repetitive.
That’s just a small matter, though, as it happened on the staff side, where things are always small. Just when it looks like Robert Crawley and his family will have to move out of Downton to an estate that’s only the size of a baseball field rather than a football field, Matthew has a change of heart and invests in Downton, thereby saving it. Prior to its immediate resolution, this seemed like the primary gear keeping this season turning, but a series of ridiculously melodramatic background events conspired to wrap it up already.
The episode’s most spectacular event worked similarly, in that there was a lot of build-up for no change at all. Edith’s wedding fizzles out in an insane way—I can’t remember any other movie or TV show where a bride is jilted like that at the alter—leaving her despairing for the rest of the episode. Not long before the credits come on, we learn that she’s determined to pretend that nothing’s happened, much like the show.
Of lesser storylines, there’s also the continuing adventures of Mr. Bates in prison, the less said about the better, and the feud between Thomas and O’Brien which largely makes no sense. The entire Downton staff knows that Thomas is always scheming, yet they choose to selectively forget this about him. Worse is that Thomas’s scheming has no sense of psychological realism. O’Brien has grown into one of the show’s most complex characters—perhaps the only complex servant—but Thomas remains shallow and scheming just so things don’t go smoothly downstairs. He seems more like a series of plot devices jammed together than a coherent person, malevolent in a way Fellowes refuses to characterize any of the aristocrats.
At the end of the episode, we’re left asking what next? While the “Downton is leaving the family” plot was repetitive, at least it kept things moving. There was an overall story arc, and while there may be something of the sort still going on, we’re a third of the way through with the season (time-wise), yet it feels like there isn’t much particularly happening—and Bates’ unlikely adventures aren’t really going to keep me in my seat. To end on a note of optimism, though, this may be a good thing. With all the repetitive plots largely out of the way, the season may be able to reboot and really move in a new direction for the next five episodes. Or not. We’ll find out next week.
•I like that Edith’s fiance was put in the oldtimer car.
•Cutting straight from “Downton Place” back to Downton Abbey with Isobel struck me as an obvious instance of re-editing for America. Such a weird instance of cross-cutting. This season is the first time I’ve watched Downton in its PBS incarnation and I find myself baffled by the effort. In my only slightly informed opinion, the original cut seems superior.