The One Reason Downton Abbey Isn't What It Used To Be

It has no villains.

by Alexander Chee | January 6, 2014

photo credit: PBS

To see Matthew Crawley bleeding from the head at the end of Downton Abbey’s third season was to wonder why you’d ever cared about the character. His death was an anticlimax: a plot point forced by the actor’s departure, and a deeply frustrating end to his long, winding courtship of Mary. The cliffhanger left us expecting season four, which premiered last night on PBS, to open with news of his death reaching Downton, where Lady Mary, who had just given birth, awaited him. But instead, season four begins with Lady Grantham’s maid, Sarah O’Brien, sneaking out of the darkened house at night—off to India to serve a new mistress. As the servants scatter like pigeons, spreading the news, and the Lord and Lady Grantham read the note, voices contorted with disgust, O’Brien’s absence may seem like a surprising first note. But it’s appropriate, in light of the hole her character leaves behind in the show—an even bigger blow than the death of Matthew. Without O’Brien, Downton Abbey is missing its best, most complex villain.  And the show’s epidemic of niceness has become its biggest flaw.

"Downton Abbey" has always had its share of antagonists. The servant Thomas Barrow seemed at first to be a likely candidate to replace O'Brien, as he was her co-conspirator for the three previous seasons, before their falling out. When we first met him in season one, he was the closeted gay footman, hoping to find a man to serve or love, perhaps both, and cast aside again and again. Our sympathy for him made his attacks on other characters feel nicely freighted. But now he has become nasty and somewhat dull, with no apparent romantic prospects or humanizing subplots. O’Brien was interesting because she both wanted to hurt and she wanted to be loved.

Last night’s episode introduced us to Nanny West, caretaker of George Crawley and his cousin Sybil, who seemed perhaps the best bet to replace O’Brien as villain. But before the episode was over, Lady Grantham fired the nanny, who had been secretly abusing Sybil. While good for the children, this is bad for the story; Nanny West’s ability to project intense affection for the children combined with her punishing private cruelty left her poised to grow a great and subtle evil in the house, one to rival O’Brien’s famous bar of soap. Instead, she is cut from the plot far too fast, replaced by a nanny who is only emptily good at her job. There is one vile character visiting in the back of the house, and that storyline, which I won’t spoil, is a promising one. But he is a simple monster, easier to hate, and a visitor, not woven into the daily fabric of the stories. And his unconscious evil lacks malice and intelligence, and even intention. 

The most disappointing character in the new season, though, is the hidden antagonist in the guise of the consummate caretaker: Lord Grantham. After all, there’s no better villain than the one who believes he does what he does for the good of all, who fancies himself the hero of his own story. He is determined to take control of the estate and settle the taxes he owes in the wake of Matthew’s death. Mary is, as he sees it, the greatest threat to the success of Downton, and must be kept from asserting any of her rights.

Downton Abbey has never quite been willing to own Lord Grantham’s role as antagonist, even as he spends the majority of his time manipulating and scheming. And this may be because he’s not good at it—constantly bending to the will of his wife, his daughters, even the servants. Throughout most of season four, he is something of a stuffed suit, thinking he’s in charge, or should be, but too much of a dolt to be threatening.  He’s too anxious to seize power, reminding everyone of how little Mary stands to inherit and how little she knows. He is so bad at business that he is likely to destroy Downton out of his ignorance if he gets his way.

Lady Mary has also flattened out. She was always Downton’s reliable trouble-maker: prickly, witty, capable of some of the show’s most devastating putdowns. And at the beginning of season four she seems poised to become an even more interesting character. She is brutal in her grief—reluctant to care for her child, excoriating Carson for having ‘stepped over the line’ when he tells her she should stand up for herself with her father. She mourns not just Matthew but the person she was with Matthew, wishing she could revert to the strong, tough-minded woman she had been before she was weakened by love. Her attempt to recover that old self could have been an excellent storyline, especially as this season finds her once again pursued by suitors: Lord Gillingham, a childhood friend who already has a fiancé; Evelyn Napier, the failed suitor from season one; and Napier’s new friend, Charles Blake, a government modernizer with the power to sell off Downton Abbey. Napier is the friend who brought Pamuk in season one, the Turk who died in Mary’s bed in one of the show’s most compelling plotlines. But the winsome bureaucrat we meet in season four pales in contrast to the memory of Pamuk, and in the end is an apt symbol of the new civility spreading across the season as a whole.

Without O’Brien, without Nanny West, without an abrasive Lady Mary, we are left with a collection of blandly do-gooder ingénues. Mrs. Hughes is mysteriously trying to fix the rift between Carson and his old show business partner, and even arranges for him to live with Isobel Crawley as he gets on his feet, deciding that Isobel needs a project to lift her cloud of mourning. Isobel then proceeds to nurse the Dowager Countess through her bronchitis. The Dowager Countess tries to help the hapless valet Mosely find a new position now that Matthew is dead. Soon even Lady Mary, who begins the season lost in misery, or ‘the land of the dead,’ as she puts it, slowly emerges, with a better idea for the future of the estate than her father’s, and then finds her way to fight for it. She is so ennobled that it’s easy to miss the wicked, feisty Mary of previous seasons.

The result is that none of Downton’s virtuous leading ladies have anywhere near the panache of any Evelyn Waugh character—there are no dissipated aristos, addicted to snuff or cocaine or heroin, no insane and manic parents, no opulent, devastating orgies. The recently introduced cousin Rose, the wildest of the bunch, is the luckiest, dullest rebel ever, never once facing serious consequences for her many visits to nightclubs. Late in the season, when she begins an affair with the black American Jazz singer, Jack Ross—said to be based on Edwina Mountbatten’s affair with Hutch Hutcherson—she is spared any of the insult and aggression a woman of her station would receive for being with a black man.

Most criticisms of Downton have accused it of anachronisms, of being not British enough for a show for a show set during the decline of the British gentry: not period enough, the accents and manners wrong. But this season the show’s biggest blind spot is its insistence on decency at the expense of complexity. More than a show about the decline of the British gentry, this is a show about the way the British gentry, forced to go fortune-hunting in America, created a hybrid family. The Granthams, dependent on American riches, are held in contempt for this by both their British peers and many of their servants. But in this new landscape of niceness, as the story contorts itself to deal her departure and Matthew’s death, much of that tension is lost. 

Also lost is the tension around whether Mary will inherit, which disappears before the middle of the season. And as Mary’s suitors fail to claim her, or at least seduce her, and the candidates for villain are dispatched, the stories that rise up in their place involve self-improvement project after self-improvement project.

Downton Abbey, at its best, is a show fueled by tension: between the old, decaying estate system and the more democratic, more modern system emerging in its place. We aren’t watching to see a show about how nicely this all turns out for everyone—all of the characters greatly improved, their edges smoothed out, the system rescued, the servants happy to be servants.

 But Downton fans should mostly take heart: the writing and directing are in many ways better than the third season’s, and more even. The redoubtable Dowager Countess lands as many rhetorical blows as ever, and Lady Edith has acquired married lover along with a new sense of style as she moves through her literary London milieu.

And in the finale, the show’s longed-for nastiness finally returns. Lord Grantham returns from the U.S. in time for Rose’s presentation to the royal court, his American brother-in-law Harold Levinson in tow. As the festivities proceed, we see a father-daughter pair plotting to fill their own family estate with Levinson cash. Harold dances with his new fortune-hunter, Miss Allsopp, and her unctuous smile feels like a premonition. When season five opens, I hope it’s their child in the Downton nursery next. 

Alexander Chee is a writer based in New York. His new novel, The Queen of the Night, is due out in the fall of 2014 from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Follow him @alexanderchee.

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