Choosing Life with Downton Abbey – Season 4

[Spoiler Alert for the season opener.]
We enjoyed watching the two hour Season Four opener, but I’m not sure if a big part of the enjoyment was just being reunited again with all the familiar characters after nine months of waiting. The storytelling dragged a bit here and there, but overall, it felt very good to be back on the estate.

The episode was very choppy primarily due to the fact that they are servicing too many characters. Seems like the success of the show has meant a much larger budget than they have had before, so they are just stuffing the cast with lots and lots of faces. This means that most of the characters are getting very little to do. For example, Lady Grentham (Elizabeth McGovern) was reduced to two or three scenes of looking distressed until her big moment of firing Nanny WhatsHerName. We only got glimmers of cute and formerly perpetually hyperventilating Tom, who has traded in his communist passions for internecine estate quibbling with Lord Grentham. Lady Rose the Tramp only gets enough screen time to frolic on the dance floor and stare at men with light-hearted lasciviousness. Mr. Bates and Anna barely have a moment to tryst as they walk by up and down hallways. And on and on. Too many characters as the show goes forward will mean superficial, unmotivated choices and the sensation of the show flailing around.

The episode was also saddled with the narrative upheaval caused by the departure of two of the key actors – O’Brien and Matthew – whose leaving was not the fault of the writers. Seemed to me the show was trying to find it’s conflict for the season and was trying out several places. Barrow vs. Bates feels like been there done that. We know Barrow is a snake and it chalenges credulity that the family upstairs who has lived with him for years hasn’t figured it out. Mary vs. her father would allow them to bring in the world beyond the estate with the suffragette issue. Edith’s love life has been a continual drag, and it is unfortunate because they have a very interesting actress there, but they haven’t found a real conflict for her. Carson vs. his friend and former life we never heard about seemed just an excuse to introduce that the butler can sing and dance. Look for him to do karaoke before the end of the season (probably insisted upon by the actor!).

On a very positive note, showrunner Julian Fellows’ Christianity was bleeding out all over in a very nice, non-overt way. There was the dowager quoting Scripture to Lady Mary without attribution: “You have before you life or death. Choose life.” The problem of Mary finding a way to cope with her grief and take her life back into her hands was the backbone of the episode which gave the two hours solid high stakes. There was the compelling healing power shown in Mrs. Crawley recovering from her grief by helping Mr. Griggs. There was the dowager plotting to help Mosley and Carson sternly calling Lady Mary back to her responsibility for her son. Good meaty Christianity all played out with talent and style. The strong, unambiguous point of view that there is a good way to live and a bad way to live is what separates Downton Abbey from a plain old soap opera, and ultimately keeps bringing the audience back for more. Twenty-first Century Storytellers take note. Sigh.

One of the big attractions of Downton Abbey for anyone still clinging to any sense of grace or decorum, is that it is a show for grownups that is not a procedural and doesn’t build stories around human perversion and violation of the audience. Very refreshing. So, for now, we will keep watching. But they seriously need to get their storytelling more in hand. We won’t be toyed with for too much longer.

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