Ian Thomas Malone

A Connecticut Yogi in King Joffrey's Court

dowager countess Archive

Sunday

8

March 2015

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Downton Abbey Should Call It Quits After Season Six

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

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

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The Ramifications of Jimmy’s Departure from Downton Abbey

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

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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Friday

7

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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