Now that was more like it. Much of Downton Abbey’s season four has felt more a chore to watch than anything. This season Downton has lost some of the luster, the grand scale and foolish frivolity for which the show has been known. Episode 5, however, felt like a return to the familiar. Violet and Isobel are butting heads, Edith is sad about a love, a dinner party with side conversations all featuring witty banter, all of which Downton Abbey is known for and episode 5 delivers on them all. Before you get too excited it all felt like a facsimile and not the true Downton – the luster was not fully restored as the episode felt more an impression of previous seasons than an actual return to form. Still, episode 5 was the most fun episode of season 4.
It is harder to pinpoint why season 4 has been so dull. Yes, the season began in the dregs of depression as everyone mourned the loss of Matt. Clearly things cannot be as usual when dealing with such a loss. But that isn’t what tarnished Downton. It is more the way the plots, all the plots, have unfolded this season.
Downton Abbey has always been a plot driven show. The plots come heavy and quickly and are usually resolved with as much speed as they are introduced. But this season’s plots have felt more haphazard as usual. Only one episode for Mary to mourn Matt until her parents threw her back into the dating pool felt rushed – especially when Mary seemed willing to abide. Mary’s depression was quickly disposed of, a little too quickly, despite her always reminding us that she still loves Matt (even in this episode as the widows’/widowers’ club of Isobel, Branson, and Mary formed) but her demeanor, aside from the first episode, felt about the same as ever. Then there was the actual romance with Gilliam, who proposed an episode and a half into his courtship. Besides the fact that it was clear it would never work it felt completely unnatural to the show and just thrown in to enhance the melodrama. Many of the plots have felt half-baked and hastily thrown together in order for shock value.
Coupling the sloppiness of the plots was the lack of comedic undertones. The zingers were few and far between and when they were included they fell well short of the mark. There were also no plots or subplots that were played up for laughs or mischief. What should have been a fun jaunt to a club for Rose and company turned into a fistfight that zapped any frivolity intended. Downton has opted for melodrama instead of deviousness or sending up of comeuppance for most of the season.
And the disappearance of getting each other’s goat and conflict between characters has also attributed. When the repartee doesn’t work then it’s time for some conflict, no matter how trivial, and the comeuppance to begin. Instead what season 4 has given the audience is a very odd feud between Molesley and Carson and, well, not much else. Sure there is the love quadrangle but that was all behind the scenes instead of conflict between the four to finally come to fruition.
In episode 5 much of that was changed. Isobel and Violet finally got to clash swords again as Isobel took up the cause of Pegg, who Violet wrongfully fired. Likewise, Mary seems to be butting heads with Mr. Blake, who has revealed that he will be analyzing how the estates going bankrupt will affect food output for the country instead of helping those estates get back on their feet. And all of this is going on while Rose is planning a party for Robert with a surprise that only she knows about.
The Isobel and Violet storyline was the most akin to previous Downton seasons. Isobel taking up for the downtrodden Pegg first tries to reason with a stubborn Violet and then cleverly gets into her house when she’s away by pretending to be dizzy. At that point some ridiculous sneaking music begins to play and she finds the knife that Violet thought was stolen between the coach cushions. When Isobel goes back to scold Violet, Violet reveals she has hired back Pegg and Isobel gets some comeuppance with Dr. Clarkson adding “I’d say that was game, set, and match to Lady Grantham.”
The dinner party was actually lively as well, something that this season of Downton had failed to do earlier. All the side conversations were lively and shifted quickly between Mary and Blake exchanging barbs, Isobel imploring Branson to stay, and Violet regaling Robert with the tale of her and Isobel’s dispute earlier. Most notable was certainly Isobel and Branson and, perhaps, it will become Isobel’s mission to make sure Branson stays at Downton for the remainder of the season. And if that is the case then that is an example of how a plotline is properly introduced.
Rose’s surprise finally comes to light and shocks everyone, first the servants and then her family and guests, by having Jack Ross (the black jazz club singer from earlier in the season) and his band play some tunes for Robert’s birthday. To see the racist shock on everyone’s faces, especially Carson’s, was about as nice a moment racism can have. The stiff upper lip trying its best to remain stiff and not let on that it is unbelievable a black man is in Downton. And of course there was then Mary catching Rose and Jack making out in the basement that will surely have some repercussions.
Anna and Bates are still dealing with her rape but at least they tried to go out and have fun instead of tiptoeing around each other or always discussing it. Alfred left for London as one of the candidates for the apprenticeship dropped out and he finally addressed Daisy’s crush on him in what was a very nice moment. Jimmy got too fresh with Ivy and Carson finally hired Molesley back. All in all Episode 5 was a busy and solid episode for PBS Masterpiece Classic’s Downton Abbey.