Ian Thomas Malone

A Connecticut Yogi in King Joffrey's Court

Downton Abbey Archive

Monday

28

August 2017

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Game of Thrones Season 7 Recap: Episode 7

Written by , Posted in Downton Abbey, Game of Thrones, Pop Culture

Of the Seven Kingdoms in Westeros, four have unclear leadership. We don’t really know who controls The Stormlands, the Reach, Dorne, and the Riverlands. We’re not even really sure who controls the Westerlands, given that the Unsullied took Casterly Rock and it isn’t quite clear whether Jaime or Cersei sit at the head of House Lannister (Cersei as Queen technically would not, if you go by how the Baratheons handled Storm’s End, but Jaime riding off on his own suggests he’s not really head either). While Littlefinger and knights of the Vale were prominent figures this season, we haven’t seen Lord Sweetrobin on screen since season five.

I mention this because Cersei’s sole condition for agreeing to the truce was that Jon needed to stay neutral in her fight against Dany once the ice zombies are all dead. This, coupled with the hiring of the Golden Company and their 20,000 men (plus elephants), signals that Cersei is pretty worried about the size of her army. The problem is that the North has been in continuous conflict since season one. Their army is spent. Cersei should not be worried about Jon. He really isn’t that important in any context other than the one where he’s a main character. A much better strategy would be to try and placate the Vale, something that Cersei already once did successfully during the War of the Five Kings and then to try and recruit former Tyrell/Martell/Tully/Baratheon bannermen in the regions. If there’s a million people in King’s Landing alone, there must be more troops. We’ve neither seen nor heard any conflicting evidence that would suggest these armies are gone.

We saw a similar lapse in judgment on Dany/Jon’s side of the equation. We had no reason to believe that they thought Euron didn’t actually abandon Cersei. That wouldn’t even really be that important, as long as his fleet wasn’t actually in King’s Landing. Jon and Dany sat around the dragon pit worrying about their failed plan without really ever considering attacking their very vulnerable opponent.

This episode’s meeting wasn’t about logic. It was the single largest gathering of major players since Robert Baratheon and his attaché marched north to recruit Ned to become Hand in the first episode of the series. The show knew the gravity of this moment, giving it half the episode.

The idea of expectations for such a meeting is fundamentally problematic. We weren’t going to get some Red Wedding style twist, not with six episodes left in the series. Instead, we got a bunch of reunions. Tyrion/Cersei, Tyrion/Bronn/Podrick, Brienne/Jaime, Hound/Brienne, Hound/Mountain, Euron/Reek, and Varys/all the people he screwed. That was essentially the only way that scene could deliver. There was no realistic way to live up to all the years of hype.

It hit its mark. It was fun television. The unveiling of the wight was a little over the top theatrical, with the Hound carrying it in on his back and Jon/Davos performing some kind of fire trick like magicians at a children’s birthday party. The plan worked and that felt kind of odd because the plan was stupid, but that was never the point.

This season’s biggest fault is that it has focuses way too much on where it wants to go and not enough time on how to get there. The Night King needed a dragon to melt the wall. The showrunners needed to get all the major players to King’s Landing for a meeting. So that moronic plan was hatched. And yet I can’t deny I was enjoying myself, sitting there watching a television show. We don’t want that to be enough since this is the kind of show where people log onto the internet after each episode to share their thoughts. Sometimes, it is enough.

The resolution of the Littlefinger plotline functioned in very much the same way. The master planner is dead because of a half baked scheme to plot sister against sister mostly hinging on an old letter that Sansa clearly wrote under duress. This doesn’t make much sense, but Littlefinger had outstayed his welcome on the show. So he died. For some reason.

Bran ex machine is tricky. The show could have done a better job of explaining how Bran knows absolutely everything, selectively. Sam bringing up the annulment right there during the R + L = J reveal was way too convenient. Bran is a problematic character in general, but the show isn’t even trying to explain how he chooses to dump his omniscient thoughts onto the characters. It forces the viewer to do the show’s work for it, taking joy in Littlefinger’s death without wondering how exactly that “trial” came to be set up.

This episode loved keeping its characters in the dark in favor of a dramatic reveal for the audience. It was fun to watch Jon tell Cersei he had pledged to Dany much to the surprise of his advisors. Euron’s dramatic exit was great, even though Cersei didn’t tell Jaime or seemingly any other advisor that he hadn’t actually abandoned them. Bran telling Ser Piggy about Jon was fun even though it makes no sense that he hasn’t told his sisters, or Jon himself. These are fun moments, if you don’t stop to think about them.

Reek continues to be the worst part of this show. He didn’t mention freeing Yara to anyone in King’s Landing, waiting until they were back on Dragonstone before whining to Jon. There’s been a Reek redemption cycle for a few seasons now. The whole forgiveness thing for his Stark betrayal was supposed to be settled when he resucued Sansa. Apparently not. It’s boring. He’s horrible. Please kill him.

I feel obliged to mention the Jon/Dany romance. I actually kind of forgot about it. It’s pretty forgettable. Putting the incest aside, the two have horrible chemistry. I’m sure this is partially due to the fact that Khal Drogo/Ygritte/Daario all played the pursuing role in their courtship of these two, but it also just seems rushed and inevitable.

Where is Gendry? Did he collapse from his marathon sprint back to the Wall? Or did the others make him row back from Eastwatch?

The Wall crumbles. I guess that capturing that wight was worth it… I hope Beric and Tormund survived. I imagine they did. Looks like show is going to deal with the ice zombies before the game of thrones is fully settled. Or maybe they’ll wrap up at same time.

Overall this was a good episode despite its shortcomings. It had to set the table for season seven. It accomplished that goal.

That’s it for this week, but we’re not quite done with the season just yet. I’ll post the season in review with the return of character letter grades sometime next week. Thanks for reading.

 

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Monday

3

April 2017

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Home Fires and “The Next Downton Abbey” Effect

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Home Fires is in the news quite a bit for a TV show that was cancelled last May. Creator Simon Block recently announced that a series of novels would continue the story of the Great Paxford Women’s Institute’s role in World War II. PBS is set to start airing the second and final series this June and the show recently topped a Radio Times poll of British TV shows that deserve to be brought back. One might say, despite the cancellation, Home Fires was doing pretty well on the publicity front.

Downton Abbey’s worldwide success inevitably lead to a revitalized interest in period dramas. Practically every network, both in the US and the UK, have tried their hands in lace and corsets. Even Comedy Central entered the fray with Another Period, poking fun at the tropes of the genre. As with any popular piece of media, the phrase, “the next Downton Abbey” inevitably popped up when referring to practically any period piece that featured characters in wardrobes other than what you’d see in your local Starbucks. The presence of DA alumni Samantha Bond and Clare Calbraith certainly allows the idea of a comparison between Downton Abbey and Home Fires to exist, but it’s hard to see how this benefits HF beyond provoking fans of the former to check out the later.

Indian Summers, The Halycon, Mercy Street, and Doctor Thorne all received the “next Downton Abbey” label in the press. None lasted more than two seasons, though there’s little indication that Doctor Thorne was ever supposed to be more than a limited series, which makes the moniker even more puzzling. How can “the next Downton Abbey” only last three episodes, even if Julian Fellowes wrote the script? With the exception of The Halycon, which advertised its emphasis on glamour and lavishness, it’s pretty hard to make the case that any of the others were trying in any way to emulate Downton Abbey.

The “next DA” label has been used for successful shows as well such as Poldark, The Durrells (titled The Durrells in Corfu in America), Victoria, and The Crown, but even with those four it’s hard to argue that the association works to their benefit. All of them are fairly rooted in their source material with Poldark and The Durrells being based off popular book series, while the latter two are biographical dramas of English monarchs. Victoria, which airs in the US in Downton’s old timeslot on Downton’s network, has received extensive media coverage, nearly all of which focuses on its potential to follow suit as a worldwide phenomenon. This is really unfair to Victoria, which is an exceptional drama in its own right.

Downton Abbey occupies a place in British television reserved for the likes of Brideshead Revisited and the original Upstairs, Downstairs. The show singlehandedly revived its genre to a place of prominence in British and American television. Comparing every period drama to it runs the risk of putting them at a disadvantage when the shows inevitably lack an under butler, two footmen, and a witty dowager. They deserve to be allowed to exist on their own merits, not in relation to a beloved worldwide phenomenon.

It is rather interesting to note that despite the popularity of “the next Downton Abbey” moniker, no show has been either credited for its success or chastised for its failure based on its ability to mirror DA. Nowhere in the announcement of Home Fires’ cancellation did we see anything chastising the show for not taking place in a massive country estate presided over by an earl.

The closest example we have to this concept is perhaps the cancellation of the revival of Upstairs, Downstairs, which premiered as a miniseries in 2010, the same year Downton Abbey premiered. A second series was commissioned that was widely panned, though the departure of Eileen Aitkins, who left because she was unhappy with the creative direction of the show, and the limited involvement of Jean Marsh, the only cast member from the original series to participate in the revival undoubtedly diminished enthusiasm. One could point to DA as a source of the show’s declining ratings, as the BBC cancelled The Paradise in part due to similarities to the ITV’s more successful Mr. Selfridge, which also aired at the same time. The problem with this theory is that it implies that the world can only accept a finite number of costume dramas, which the post DA landscape has thoroughly debunked. Clearly the world can never have enough corsets. The simpler explanation that Upstairs, Downstairs failed because its second series wasn’t very good seems much more plausible.

The circumstances surrounding Home Fires’ cancellation remain a bit curious. A combination of constraints surrounding ITV’s budget as well a diminished international interest seems to be the best explanation, especially since PBS waited almost a full year to air the second series. The idea that Home Fires, as well as Indian Summers and The Halycon, were cancelled at least in part for not being more like Downton Abbey persists. Home Fires clearly wasn’t cancelled because nobody liked it or nobody watched it. Expectations can be burdensome for anyone and in the case of “the next DA” moniker, there doesn’t seem to be much of a benefit at all to tying an anchor of unreasonable ambitions to every single period drama that follows. Hopefully if another series Home Fires is ever commissioned, no one will suggest that it returned to assume its status as the next Downton Abbey. Only members of the Crawley family deserve to be burdened with that moniker.

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Sunday

13

September 2015

1

COMMENTS

I Hate Mr. Bates

Written by , Posted in Blog, Downton Abbey, Pop Culture

I recently rewatched most of Downton Abbey in preparation for season six, which starts a week from today. Being known for its soap operatic value, one shouldn’t step into Highclere Castle expecting plots that make sense or robust character development. Julian Fellowes doesn’t hit his mark every time, but there’s certainly a reason why the recent trailer tugs at many people’s heartstrings and it’s not just because of the music. It’s because we’ve grown to love these characters.

There’s one man I used to love (as one loves a fictional character) once upon a time, but that affection has vanished. Like many, I started to feel it in season four and that continued as questions regarding his morality surfaced yet again. As you probably gathered from the title of this article, I am, of course, referring to Mr. Bates.

At first glance, he’s a tough guy to hate. Misery seems to follow him everywhere, tracking him by the sound of his cane thumping on Downton’s creaky floors and yet, he’s a pretty decent guy. He gave Molesley some money and saved Barrow from ruin at the hands of O’Brien/Jimmy. So why hate his Lordship’s valet?

The Mr. Green plotline has been almost universally panned. Many articles have been penned about how Fellowes has no idea as to what to do with either Bates. I’ve found that the problem goes even beyond Mr. Green. To put it simply, Mr. Bates is terrible.

I’ve gotten into several arguments regarding the Bates/Barrow feud. People say I’m horrible or contrarian for taking Thomas’ side, usually because they forget what’s important. It’s not about who’s the most morally altruistic person. It’s about who’s fun to watch.

There’s a scene in season five where Barrow acknowledges the simple fact that the two do not like each other. This gave me a bit of an “aha” moment as I realized that I don’t like Mr. Bates either. In season three, I was firmly on team #freeBates. Now when I watch season three, I usually skip his scenes (along with Edith’s, which makes it easier for me to keep watching the same show over and over).

Think about how many episodes of the show feature a happy Mr. Bates. He’s sad when he first gets there because no one likes him. He spends the rest of season one feuding with the O’Brien/Barrow dream team and sad about his leg. We also find out he was in trouble for being a thief, which was the first red flag.

Season two brings even more bad news. We find out he has a wife who he doesn’t like. He has a brief moment of happiness when he marries Anna, but then he goes to jail, where he spends most of season three.

He’s happy for a little bit at the end of season three and the beginning of season four, though we find out that he’s also a forger in addition to being a thief. What a standup guy! He’s also always moody. Sure, he’s had rotten luck, but so has Molesley. Downton’s cricket champion never lets the world get him down.

The reason for this sadness is simple. He has nothing else to do. Fellowes never tried to give him any storyline that didn’t involve horrible things happening to him. It got boring. I left the #freeBates team in favor of #killBates. At least then, Molesley could take his place as valet.

Downton Abbey is a drama. We expect characters to endure hardships. It’s generally considered reasonable to expect to be given a reason to like the character as well.

Bates and Barrow contrast well in this regard. Both are generally pretty moody and we know why. Bates is a crippled creep and Barrow is gay at a time when that was not only completely unacceptable, it was criminal.

Their unpleasantness manifests itself in different ways. Barrow takes his anger out on others while Bates is just a grump. We can probably assume that Bates is the better person (unless he actually killed Mr. Green or more gruesome details about his past turn up), but what does that really matter?

As a character, Bates lacks depth. Even his romance with Anna seemed a bit rushed. More importantly, he doesn’t make for good television.

Reports for season six suggest that not everyone will have a happy ending. It’s hard to tell where Bates will fit into this. One would think Fellowes would throw a curveball and let him limp off into the sunset with Anna on his arm. Problem is, I don’t care.

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Tuesday

7

April 2015

4

COMMENTS

Character Study: Sir Richard Carlisle

Written by , Posted in Blog, Downton Abbey, Pop Culture

It’s not particularly hard to see why season two of Downton Abbey is often considered the best. The World War One plotline was perfectly executed and gave the show a feeling of being more than just a soap opera about rich people’s problems (not that there’s anything wrong with that). It wouldn’t be fair to solely credit the plotline for this delightfulness as the new characters played an important role in the success of the season.

At first glance, it’s easy to write off Sir Richard Carlisle as purely villainous. He certainly ended his season long arc as the bad guy. When you look at the newspaper mogul’s tenure as a whole, you see that there was more to him than just his perpetual rudeness.

Iain Glen was tasked with a difficult job in portraying Sir Richard. Julian Fellowes never tried very hard to convince the viewers that Sir Richard actually stood a shot at taking Mary away from Downton. His proposal to Lady Mary ranks among the least romantic courtships in the history of television and most of the characters expressed doubt that Mary would actually go through with marrying him.

Sir Richard was a necessary evil. It was important to prolong the inevitable marriage of Mary and Matthew. This is how television works. With that in mind, it could’ve been easy to not care about Sir Richard as it was always clear that he wasn’t going to be around for very long.

It seems kind of surprising that Sir Richard proposed in episode two, his first appearance, and managed to hang around for the whole season in a completely loveless engagement (though Sir Richard was absent for episodes three and four). Early on, he proved his use by tracking down Vera Bates and saving Mary from public embarrassment had the first Mrs. Bates revealed her transgressions with the Turkish gentleman.

The difficulty with Sir Richard was that he needed to not be sympathetic to prevent the audience side from siding with him over Mary or from too closely resembling Lavinia Swire, who was conveniently killed, off allowing Matthew to save face with the viewers. Mary herself isn’t particularly likable. Sir Richard needed to be more despicable than her, but not excessively tedious to the point that he wouldn’t be able to hang around for the duration of the season. This balance was no easy task.

When you think about it, Sir Richard’s crimes weren’t really all that bad. He had some shady business with the Swire’s early on and his attempt at spying on Lady Mary was foolish, but neither act should really condemn him as a character. It was pretty clear that Mary did not love him and we weren’t really given an alternative motive for his failed efforts to recruit Anna for some espionage other than a genuine desire to please his fiancé.

It was perfectly reasonable of Sir Richard to be concerned about Mary’s proximity to Matthew. She once loved Matthew but she never loved Sir Richard. If you were in Sir Richard’s shoes, wouldn’t you be a tad concerned about your fiancé hanging around her ex?

Carlisle’s big crimes were that he was rude and that nobody liked him. Other than that, he was perfectly respectable and a great fit for Lady Mary. Sir Richard’s status as a self-made man likely made him respectable to many viewers, which is a testament to Fellowes’ writing. It would have been easy to create a villainous character for Mary to fool around with for a season before finally giving in to her love of Matthew, but the more challenging route paid off.

Instead, Sir Richard was given depth. Iain Glen has a knack for playing sketchy knights (he also plays Ser Jorah on Game of Thrones, another man who lusts after a girl he can’t have) and with Sir Richard, he portrayed a character who had a clear and finite purpose, but was surprisingly entertaining to watch.

I suspect that Fellowes had Sir Richard in mind when he created the character of Miss Sarah Bunting. Like Sir Richard, Miss Bunting was an odious character who clearly wasn’t going to be around for very long, but that didn’t mean that she wasn’t given depth and a couple redeeming qualities. Perhaps they would’ve been perfect for each other.

Sir Richard came and played his part on a show he was never going to be part of for very long. To some, he might be a character that you love to hate or just plain hate without any love at all (like his relationship with Mary). As for me, I liked him. He was perfect for Mary, but that’s not what was best for the show.

Next on Character Study, we’ll look at Ally McBeal’s Ling Woo 

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Sunday

8

March 2015

0

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Downton Abbey Should Call It Quits After Season Six

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I’ve been re-watching old Downton Abbey episodes quite a bit lately. This is partially because I’ve been in a bit of a rut with new shows, but also because DA is one of my all time favorites (surprise, surprise). With all the talk of Maggie Smith leaving after next season, I thought it would be a good time to chime in with my own thoughts.

People have been quick to challenge the legitimacy of the sources, but I’d be pretty shocked if it wasn’t true. The Dowager Countess is quite old. Maggie Smith makes comments about this all the time. It would be comical to keep her character around for another two season, especially when you consider that DA typically jumps ahead a few years with each season.

While the Dowager plays more of a secondary role, she’s easily the show’s signature character. Lady Violet’s witticisms and facials reactions to the threats on the status quo for the aristocracy are a major reason why the show stands above all the other period dramas in terms of popularity. The cast has seen a significant overhaul in its five seasons, but to lose a core character this late in the show’s run would be hard to stomach. Which is why it should not outlive her.

Downton Abbey is frequently referred to as a soap opera, mostly because of its often melodramatic storylines. It’s important to note that while many of the plots are silly, DA plot progression is the polar opposite of a typical soap opera. DA is all about change whereas soap operas fight to preserve the status quo.

It’s no secret that DA has been on a downward slide for some time. The death of Matthew is often blamed for this, which I’ve explored in previous articles. From a critical perspective, one could argue that season one was the high point (Metacritic supports this, though its hardly unanimous elsewhere). I’d personally go with season two, though that’s not really a knock on season three. World War One was just more interesting than guilt, death, and prison.

It would be unfair to criticize season four for the inevitable scrambling that came as a result of Matthew’s death, but there have been three plotlines that have dragged on for the two seasons with shoddy resolutions: Mary’s courtship, Tom’s departure (if you subscribe to the belief that he’s not actually leaving the show), and Mr. Green’s death. I wasn’t in love with the Edith pregnancy storyline, but at least it wrapped itself up.

The common strands that tied seasons four and five closer together than any other two seasons presents an interesting question for the future. What now? With most of the servants preparing for their retirements, it feels like the end is nigh.

Most shows aren’t designed to go on forever, especially British ones which are often known for their brevity. Six seasons isn’t necessarily the standard run, but it’s not uncommon either. When shows go on longer, it’s often at the insistence of the network and almost always decline further in quality.

This has already happened with Downton. Season five might have been better than season four, but it doesn’t come close to the first three. That doesn’t mean that a final season can’t be spectacular.

Final seasons often give shows a resurgence, as they allow the creators the ability to wrap things up rather than string them along. Downton’s relatively short seasons give Fellowes the chance to accomplish this along with a few new plots.

Think about what a season seven would look like. Rose is already gone, though we can probably expect her in an episode or two. If this is it for the Dowager, then who’s supposed to make their dinners interesting? With Carson’s advanced aged, who’s going to serve them?

Furthermore, two more seasons brings them dangerously close to World War Two. Fellowes has said repeatedly that the show would not cover it and it isn’t exactly equipped to handle it with no males eligible to serve except for possibly George Crawley, who we don’t even really know, assuming Robert, Thomas, Carson, and Molesley are all too old to enlist.

Downton Abbey set out to tell a story about post Edwardian life for the aristocrats who desperately tried to cling on to their old traditions. It’s accomplished that and in doing so, has become a worldwide phenomenon. That doesn’t change the fact that the story has been told.

I for one, want Downton to go out with a bang. I don’t think it can do that in two seasons. That might have worked if Fellowes hadn’t started preparing for the end halfway through season five, but he didn’t. Just because it could be dragged out for another two seasons doesn’t mean that it should.

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Monday

16

February 2015

0

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The Ramifications of Jimmy’s Departure from Downton Abbey

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Note: I have seen all of series five of Downton Abbey, which has two more episodes to go in America. This article does not contain spoilers for those episodes. I recommend reading my article on the implications of Matthew’s death as there’s some overlap in subject matter.

At its core, Downton Abbey has always been about change. Lord Grantham, Lady Violet, and Mr. Carson fight this at nearly every corner, while many of the show’s other characters welcome it. As we’ve seen from five series that cover a twelve year time span, even the British aristocracy cannot escape change. For the most part, that’s a good thing.

The natural progression of this change is a shrinking servant staff as Earls learn to dress themselves and pour their own tea. Nearly every servant, young and old have explored this change in mentality as they ponder their places in the ever changing dynamic. Despite this, we saw the cast expand in series three with the arrivals of Alfred, Jimmy, and Ivy.

Seeing fresh faces at Downton coupled with the new aged business practices of Matthew and Tom breathed new life into the dynamic and suggested that Downton might be able to survive without sacrificing too much of the old world. Downton was hiring, not cutting back. Lord Grantham even created a new position for Thomas Barrow, creating the underbutler position to ensure that he could continue to be the man everyone loves to hate.

The youth movement was short lived. By the end of episode one of series five, Alfred, Ivy, and Jimmy were all gone. No new footmen were hired as Molesley was left to endure the wrath of Carson alone. The kitchen features the occasional character helping out, but Ivy was certainly not replaced from a storyline perspective.

This kind of makes sense. Alfred left to become a chef, aware that there wasn’t much of a future in the service industry for a footman. Seeing Molesley struggle to find work despite having experience as both a butler and a valet must have reinforced that. Ivy similarly jumped ship for a new adventure, traveling to America to serve Cora’s brother Harold. Jimmy was the only one whose departure wasn’t linked to the changing times, having been dismissed after being caught in bed with Lady Anstruther.

Alfred’s departure can be easily explained. He needed to go in order to make room for Molesley, who was without a position at Downton. Linking his leaving to the changing times was an added bonus. Ivy wasn’t exactly in a position where she needed to go, but it’s pretty clear that her character was expendable and likely a waste of screen time. She was boring.

The only departure that didn’t really have an obvious motive belongs to Jimmy. That’s not to say that there wasn’t one. Ivy and Alfred were the two characters he interacted with the most, but there was still Barrow, Daisy, and to a lesser extent Rose. Problem is, there isn’t a lot that could have been done with them from a storyline perspective.

I suppose Jimmy could have had a relationship with Daisy, but that wouldn’t have made much sense. A relationship with Rose would’ve been too similar to Sybil/Tom (not that Fellowes is against repetitive storylines). There are limitations for how much Jimmy could do with Barrow as well. It’s not really hard to see why he was viewed as expendable.

The implications of their departures seem to matter more than the loss of them as characters. Not hiring a new second footman means that Downton has cast aside formality for practicality. They didn’t need two footmen, but does that mean there shouldn’t be two footmen?

A side effect of their departure was that it removed Downton as a future centerpiece of prosperity. The young people moved on and the old people need to make arrangements for retirement. Daisy’s storyline has been all about this, undoubtedly provoked by the departures of her peers.

This is where I think getting rid of Jimmy was a mistake. Even if there wasn’t a clear storyline for him, he was still worth keeping around for the sake of appearances. He made Downton look like less of a retirement community.

Fellowes has had no trouble going long periods of time without giving characters like Patmore and the Bates anything to do. Instead of doing that with Ivy and Jimmy, he sent them away. In doing so, he cast a rather premature spotlight on the inevitable direction Downton is headed toward. We know what’s coming. We just didn’t need to see it this early.

Series 6 is widely considered to be the last for Downton Abbey. My next DA themed article will talk about why that’s a good idea, but it’s important to understand why losing Alfred, Ivy, and Jimmy made series 7 such an improbability. Killing the youth movement sped everything else up, a problem that will be further exacerbated by Rose’s presumed departure as the actress is filming Cinderella. There isn’t much else left to do but wrap things up. I’m not convinced that had to be the case all along.

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Saturday

10

January 2015

2

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Analyzing the Impact of Matthew’s Death on Downton Abbey

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 Note, while I dislike spoiler notes immensely, as Downton Abbey is currently airing in America, I thought it was polite to note that this article contains minor spoilers through season five as it’s completed its run in England already.

It’s hard to believe it’s been two years since the abrupt car accident took Matthew Crawley away from Downton Abbey at the tail end of the season three Christmas Special. Perhaps it feels longer because of the drop in quality since the heir to Downton left the show. The excellent season five Christmas special shows that DA does have some life left, making now an appropriate time to take a look at how Matthew’s death changed the show.

Downton Abbey, being an ensemble drama, means that it’s hard to argue that Matthew’s death changed the storylines for every single character on the show, even though he was a main character. Matthew didn’t frequently interact with everybody on the show, making it hard to really say that his death impacted everyone equally. You could argue that he might have played a part in Mrs. Patmore’s dead nephew storyline, but you wouldn’t really say that his death altered her arc in any substantial way.

I’ve organized the impact of Matthews’s death on the cast by five tiers. I’m going to exclude Lord Gillingham, Charles Blake, and the rest of Mary’s suitors who were introduced post season three as it’s unlikely they would have been even introduced had Matthew stayed on the show.

Tier 1 (Major): Mary, Molesley

Tier 2 (Secondary): Lord Grantham, Isobel Crawley

Tier 3 (Unknown): Lady Rose, Tom Branson, John Bates, Anna Bates

Tier 4: Everyone else.

Tier 1 is fairly straightforward. Mary’s entire storyline was completely altered because of her husband’s death. No Matthew means no suitors. It’s possible that either Lord Gillingham or Charles Blake could have been introduced in a similar fashion to Simon Bricker, but most of her storylines would be in conjunction with Matthew’s. Maybe she would be a better mother.

Molesley is the other one whose entire storyline was impacted by Matthew’s absence. Matthew’s death caused Molesley’s complete fall from grace, going from valet to second footman. This might have been for the best from a screen time perspective, but he was already comic relief. He might have been in a better positon to court Miss Baxter, but Fellowes has always found ways to screw Molesley. Matthew’s death took much of his dignity, but perhaps it made him more endearing to the audience.

Tier 2 might be a point of debate for some, especially considering that Isobel is Matthew’s mother. But his move to Downton set up Isobel’s relationship with Violet quite nicely and I think that would have happened regardless of whether or not Matthew died. Obviously there were grief moments that wouldn’t have happened, but I don’t think her storyline took the drastic turn that Mary and Molesley experienced.

Lord Grantham fits largely under the same category. Aside from the will stuff, Robert’s storylines would have happened anyway. Matthew would have been involved with the business matters, but you can mostly swap Mary out with him to see what would have happened there. I don’t think Matthew’s death necessarily precluded him from any particular storyline.

We can split up the Tier 3 Unknowns into two categories. Lady Rose and Tom likely experienced slightly larger roles due to Matthew’s death. But I don’t think it’s fair to say that Matthew’s presence would lead to any major changes for either one. Rose could have still come to Downton to represent the younger side of the aristocracy. There was the role of Sybil to be replaced as well, though she was hardly a major character in season three.

Tom is a bit trickier. There’s no denying that he filled some of Matthew’s role, both in Lord Grantham’s eyes and the viewer’s. But would Matthew’s presence prevent his relationship with Miss Bunting or interfere with his desire to move to America? I don’t think so. Matthew meant a great deal to Tom, but his path wasn’t blocked by having a friend and similar (relative) outsider.

As for the Mr. and Mrs. Bates, they seem like an interesting choice to put in the mix considering neither shared much screen time with Matthew. But Matthew’s death lead to Lord Gillingham, which led to Mr. Greene and Anna’s subsequent rape. If Greene hadn’t done it, there’s certainly the possibility that someone else could have. But Matthew’s presence and the need to give him something to do might have cancelled that one out entirely. We don’t know. Hence the unknown.

Which is sort of the same for the rest of the cast. You could say that Matthew might have developed a rapport with Carson, but that’s pure speculation that isn’t really rooted in anything. He could have gotten caught up in a Barrow plot or maybe not.

One element worth speculating on is whether or not Alfred, Ivy, and Jimmy would have left if Matthew hadn’t died. While Matthew didn’t really have anything to do with those three, he was at the forefront of Downton’s “youth movement” in season three, as he and Tom worked with Lord Grantham to modernize things from a business perspective. Entering season six, that youth moment is largely gone, though there’s a new footman in Andy who could bring down the servant’s average age by quite a bit.

One could point to Matthew’s death as indirectly causing Alfred’s departure as Molesley took his place as footman. I wouldn’t say that necessarily needed to be the case and the subsequent departures of Ivy and Jimmy suggest that if that hadn’t have happened, something else might have. Unless you want to make the argument that Matthew’s death elevated the importance of Molesley as a character, rendering some of the servants redundant since there’s only so much screen time to go around.

Which isn’t an unfair point. Matthew’s death took much of the “let’s bring Downton into the modern times” away and instead created a sort of holding pattern that did the show no favors in its lackluster forth season. It’s fair to suggest that the show would have been more business related if for any other reason than it would’ve needed something to take the place of all the grieving over Matthew’s death.

Matthew’s death may not have created much of a visible “void” considering Downton’s large cast, but it had a tremendous impact. Shows like DA tend not to get better with age, but much of the complaints over the past two years fall on Mary’s storylines and the stunting of the plot that was forced by his death. That was avoidable, but it still happened because Dan Stevens wanted off the show before Fellowes could figure out how to adjust properly.

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November 2014

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Season 5 of Downton Abbey Bides Its Time While Waiting for the End

Written by , Posted in Blog, Downton Abbey, Pop Culture

Change has always had a consistent presence on Downton Abbey. Being a period drama, we have a fairly good idea of where the show is going to go as it creeps closer to its inevitable finale. Despite this, the show has done a remarkable job in breathing new life into the old house and decaying aristocratic society.

We saw this particularly in season three with the arrivals of Alfred, Jimmy, and Ivy, which gave the show’s dynamic a breath of fresh air. The youth movement did wonders to negate the feeling that from here on out, life at Downton would veer from the extravagant to the simplistic. With Alfred’s departure in series four, Ivy’s after the Christmas Special, and Jimmy’s after the first episode of series five, that youthful energy is all but gone, leaving Daisy in a similar holding pattern she was in at the start of the show.

The absence of the three of these characters isn’t a big loss from a story perspective. Eight episodes is hardly enough time to adequately address the show’s ensemble cast anyway. Their departures address something that we’d all rather avoid. Things are winding down and now it’s starting to show.

The future was a predominant theme is season five. Carson, Hughes, Patmore, and the Bates all made arrangements for their retirements while Tom continued to grapple with his desire to leave for America while taking Sybbie’s best interests into consideration. Lord Grantham continued to weigh the interests of the village against his obligation to preserve the way of life that can be threatened by those whose interest lie solely in monetary game. Mrs. Crawley debates a marriage proposal to the disdain of Lady Violet, who fears losing her treasured companion as selfish as that may be.

Problem is, this is all familiar territory. Edith and Tom’s storylines are merely continuations of plots from last season that could, and probably should have been wrapped up. Lady Rose’s late season courtship with Atticus is just about the only fresh plotline to be had other than Mrs. Crawley, who unexpectedly found herself in possession of one of the show’s better stories.

The Bates remain the biggest thorn in Julian Fellows’ paw. He has never really known what to do with them. Sadly, this has resulted in yet another murder plotline that’s even more droll and tedious as the first. It’s hard to imagine that #freebates was ever a legitimate fan rally as the couple hasn’t had a positive moment in years.

Fan sentiment also provides a roadblock for Lady Edith and her illegitimate child. It’s sad story. It isn’t a particularly interesting one and Edith’s years of being an annoying/whiney character didn’t do the plot any favors. After five seasons of watching her mope around, it’s hard to care.

This season had a few shining moments worth remembering. Miss Bunting quickly became of the most hated characters in the show’s history and Fellow’s timed her depature perfectly as to not allow her to overstay her welcome (or rather unwelcome). Thomas received redemption of sorts from Dr. Clarkson in one of the season’s most touching moments. Molesley was Molesley and as such, got his own article.

I watched an old season two episode in between episodes to see the contrast between then and now. It’s to be expected that shows drop off a bit as they get older. Even a worldwide phenomenon like Downton.

The problem is that Downton has an identity crisis, a problem that’s existed since the World War I storyline ended but was exacerbated by Matthew’s death. The show knows where it’s going, but it doesn’t know what to do with itself in the meantime. It seems to be a fairly safe assumption that next season will be the final one, which may not be such a bad idea.

Downton Abbey is certainly more entertaining the most of what’s on TV, but it’s also clear that the show is well past its prime. Fellows overindulged in repetitive storylines and drew out others unnecessarily. It’s hard to call season five bad, but when the bar was raised so high from previous years, the drop in quality is a tad unfortunate. The Dowager would certainly not be impressed.

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November 2014

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Mr. Molesley: The Man, The Myth, The Legend

Written by , Posted in Blog, Downton Abbey, Pop Culture

From his first appearance in episode two, it would be hard to tell that Joseph Molesley would become one of Downton Abbey’s most endearing characters. From butler to valet to laborer to footman, Molesley has a list of occupations rivaled only by Thomas. The backwards progression of these jobs naturally lead to a consistent suffering matched only by Lady Edith. Yet as season five comes to a close, Molesley goes on, earning both the adoration and respect of his fellow workers and viewers alike.

Molesley begins his time on Downton as the butler to Mrs. Crawley, a job that appears to have been organized by either Robert or Violet as Molesley was away from the area at the start of the show. He continued to be a minor character and occasional comic relief throughout the first season. His standout moment was perhaps when Matthew struggled to embrace his services, creating a unique moment where the lavish excess of the upper class is countered by the pride that a person like Molesley takes in his duties.

We see this evolve in season two as Molesley finds himself with little to do in Mrs. Crawley’s absence. Rather than sit around twiddling his thumbs, Molesley makes himself useful at the big house. This is overshadowed by his accidental drunkenness brought on by wine tasting and his failed romantic overtures directed at Anna. Season two establishes Molesley as the good-natured Mr. Bean like klutz destined to be Julian Fellows’ whipping boy.

This “Molesley must suffer” mentality continues in season three. With Matthew engaged to Lady Mary, it makes sense that Molesley would be destined for the big house as the valet to the heir of Downton. Problem is that Matthew doesn’t want a valet. But then he gets one for some strange reason, only it’s not Molesley. It’s Alfred. Without the interference by a jealous Thomas, who insisted that Alfred was not ready for such duties, Molesley might still be in the service of Mrs. Crawley.

Molesley’s high status as Matthew’s valet was short lived. While Mary and Mrs. Crawley could recover their statuses following Matthew’s death, there was no one for Molesley to valet for. Season four showed Fellows’ love of making Molesley suffer as convenient landing destinations for his services were foiled using spotty logic. Mrs. Crawley could’ve easily taken him back as butler and Spratt could have been kicked to the curb following his sabotage of Molesley’s audition. So poor Joesph had to settle for the lowly job of second footman.

The problem is that the positive outcomes would’ve taken him away from the big house, which at this point is where he belongs. The staff has taken quite a beating over the past two years, seeing O’Brien, Alfred, Jimmy, and Ivy all leave. The latter three weren’t exactly replaced by new characters, making Molesley even more important.

There are two distinct versions of Molesley that the viewer gets to see. There’s the drunken bumblehead who loses at cricket and can’t seem to catch a break. But then there’s the man who shows a genuine desire to help others like Baxter and Daisy and of course, the strong man victory in the season three Christmas special.

Mrs. Patmore’s scolding of Daisy for her treatment of Molesley was what prompted me to write this article. In telling Daisy to be nice to people who are kind, Patmore reminds us why people like Molesley are special. They’re rare.

Molesley has had his fair shares of ups and downs, but besides his reluctance to accept the footman position, which received a rather rude response from Carson, he takes his fortunes in stride (even his strong man carnival victory). How many of us can say the same?

Through five seasons, Molesley has grown from a background comic relief figure to the heart and soul of Downton Abbey. He’s an older worker facing uncertain times without the capital of Carson, Hughes, Patmore, and the Bates, who can all invest in retirement options. But you wouldn’t know that just by looking at him. He’s neither the best looking nor the most interesting person on the show, but his consistent good nature sets him apart from the rest of the cast and earns him a place in the viewer’s hearts.

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